Ten years ago a game called Halo came out on the Xbox, a game until that time wasn't even known on a console. Hyped for years as a PC game, it wasn’t until Microsoft bought Bungie and used the game as a flagship title for the Xbox that the phenomena truly began. The series has come a long way since and accomplished more than I think anybody ever thought it would. Bungie has a big Spartan helmet to fill with Halo Reach, so will their final swan song for the Halo franchise capture and encompass it all to bid a fond farewell?
Halo Reach is the story of Noble squad, a group of six Spartan soldiers on the planet Reach. Reach is an icon of human civilization and the humans know that if Reach falls to the Covenant, Earth is next on the list. You assume the role of Noble 6, a nameless Spartan who joins the squad after the death of the previous six. Each squad member has their own personality - Carter, the leader, is a by the books kind of guy. Kat, the tech, walks a thin line between insubordination and a do anything at all costs kind of attitude. Jorge is the big brute guy with the huge muscles who’s just a big softy underneath. Jun is your smooth as nails get behind enemy lines guy. Finally Emile is there to provide cover and stir the pot. Each character’s unique personality comes through in many of the game’s cut scenes as well as via in the in game radio - something that’s quite different from hearing your advice from an AI like Cortana.
When you fire up the game for the first time you’ll be greeted with a screen to create and customize your Noble 6 character. Bungie’s new experience and credit system allows players to customize numerous aspects of their character which are visible in every aspect of the game including the campaign, co-op and versus modes. You can tweak your appearance from your helmet to your knee pads and everything in between as well as purchase special unlockables like Sgt. Johnson’s voice for Firefight and special effects for your armor.
The first thing you’re going to notice when you get into the campaign in Reach is just how pretty the game is. Bungie went back to the drawing board with the engine and the results are spectacular - particularly during the sweeping landscape and space shots. The background, while looking like a painting, is alive with the battle of Reach. You’ll constantly see ships dog fighting in the skies and the distant battle of troops on the horizon with explosions and gunfire. Reach truly is a beautiful game.
The biggest change for me was Covenant themselves. While most of the characters are familiar, Bungie has given them less of a human personality and more of a visceral animal like feel. This time we are unable to understand the Covenant language; Grunts no longer make wise cracks, Elites no longer call you out, and Brutes don’t warn you of an incoming charge. Instead growls, grunts, and roars are in the place of the familiar caricaturistic sound bites from Halo's past. It doesn’t end at the audio, the characters themselves look more “realistic” - there’s a distinct departure from the cartoony look the previous games have taken.
That being said, Bungie has borrowed a lot from it’s previous titles. Taking the best pieces of each game it’s easy to see the inspiration from Halo 1 all the way up to ODST. For instance, there’s a night vision mode that’s similar to the ODST's from the last game. There’s a mission that feels very much like that first time you set foot on Halo, there's a flying mission like that from Halo 2's banshee level, and there’s even a mission from the Halo Wars game. After a somewhat slow start the pacing really picks up as the story unfolds. This is bolstered with a variety of different styles of missions to play. Vehicles, sneaking, large battles, and space combat all keep you on your toes - you’ll never want to put the controller down.
There’s something charming about a prequel, especially for someone who’s followed a series as rich as Halo. Halo Reach doesn’t disappoint in this department either - many of your favorite character’s origins are revealed, and it's hard to not smile when you realize what’s unfolding before your eyes.
The space battle is a gorgeous diversion from some of the other missions
So what else is new, yet old in Halo Reach? Most of the weapons from the previous games have returned with plenty of new ones to boot. The DMR, a single shot battle rifle, is probably my favorite but there’s at least 4 new Covenant weapons in addition to some other unique equipment like a gun that lets you call in air strikes. The biggest change to your arsenal are armor abilities, these unique options get slotted into your Spartan and can be interchanged when found on the battlefield. Jetpacks, sprinting, bubble shields, invincibility, and a hologram all aid in your battle for survival. I’m a huge fan of the new bubble shield, it not only protects you, it’ll heal you and your team mates in the process.
Which brings me to co-op. It’s been a staple of the series since the beginning, now Bungie has wrapped up the last remaining “loose” ends. Co-Op matchmaking is finally a feature for the campaign, though I was unable to test it. According to PR it’s not getting “turned on” until launch day - so hopefully it doesn't disappoint. There’s also match making for the four player co-op Firefight mode, which in reality, behaves almost exactly like the versus mode’s play lists. You’ll choose Firefight and then be given a few variant game types that Bungie defines in which the players can vote on. In both of these modes you can mix and match local and online players as well as players from your party and friends list. Another nice feature is the queuing option which displays all of your friends that are playing in the main lobby and allows you to queue up to join their Halo Reach party upon completion of their next match - this works for all of the game modes.
My customized Noble 6
The amount of options available to customize Firefight are amazing, if not, a bit daunting. Players can create a Firefight game that not only has a different number of rounds and goals, but also players have options like gravity, speed, skulls and more PER WAVE. This is in addition to the new generator defense variant as well. Really there's infinite possibilities for Firefight now - including a versus option. Sadly you can’t take these custom modes you create into matchmaking, but you can save and share them with your friends to play.
The new default Firefight type is only one set consisting of numerous waves. The whole thing is streamlined now to only take about 12 minutes a game, no doubt, to accommodate matchmaking. It works well enough but I yearn for the epic feeling of ODST’s Firefight matches. The mode is still available as a built in type, it’s just not available in matchmaking. Perhaps we’ll see it added as a playlist in the future.
Halo Reach is a massive game. I haven’t even touched the game’s new versus modes and options, the scalable enemy AI based for co-op, and the daily and weekly challenges, new epic music, and a revamped Forge level editor. Halo has come a long way since the Master Chief on the original Xbox and LAN games in the college dorms. Reach feels so massive, so social, and so polished - it may not be a perfect experience - but it’s the perfect way to introduce the Halo: Combat Evolved game we love, to end with a game we’ll be playing for a long, long time.