The Xbox brand owes alot to Bungie; Halo: Combat Evolved's introduction with the first Xbox both popularised the FPS genre on consoles and almost single handedly validated Microsoft's first attempt at the home gaming market. The sequel Halo 2 was the most played game on Xbox Live for several years after release until the current generation of titles arrived and produced games that could eventually garner similar success. By the time Halo 3 arrived its dominance was not so assured with many high quality FPS games offering new alternatives with just as much popularity. The franchise remains a powerhouse with several spin off games (ODST, Halo Wars) and regardless of how crowded the genre has gotten or how eroded the franchise's impact has become, the developer and its fans have remained loyal throughout. It's only appropriate then that they have been given the opportunity to say a proper farewell before they move on to finally complete their seventh step and take over the world.
Before they can start shopping for that extra large slingshot though they need to finish what they started, or rather in this case start it again. Based on the events of the first book (The Fall of Reach), Halo: Reach is a prequel to the original Halo: Combat Evolved. It tells the story of Noble 6, a new addition to an elite group of Spartans known as Noble team who have been tasked with defending a heavily fortified human planet during the war with the fanatically religious collection of species known as the Covenant.
Halo has always stood out with its splashes of colour and its cartoony art style, in a market where realism and graphic violence are almost the status quo Reach meets these expectations half way. The detail has been increased considerably helping to create a more convincing sci-fi environment with a touch more realism while still conforming to the familiar style we have come to expect. The planet Reach provides a varied backdrop for the action from the series' staple of open rolling battlefields to futuristic city skylines and alien structures, all of which adequately convey the scale and brutality of the battle.
The Spartans themselves are well realised with thier battle scarred customised armour (now with removable helmets!) projecting their roles and their personality. A nice touch is customising Noble Six's armour using credits obtained throughout the game which changes his appearance both in-game and in the graphics engine generated cut-scenes, giving Six an element of personalisation, though not as much as some of the other team members whose actual faces are animated well without falling too far into the uncanny valley. Together with some excellent voice work the members of Noble team are the most well presented characters in the series so far.
Marty O'Donnell returns to deliver another soaring score, the hallmark themes return for big moments while the moment to moment gameplay often has chugging guitars propelling it along. Design wise the audio seems to have developed a greater sense of weight, most of the trademark sounds were re recorded and together with smooth animation it gives the impactful moments such as grenade explosions and gun fire a little bit more punch.
With several games behind them and fans spending millions of hours perfecting the current play style it's unsurprising there aren't many alterations to be seen here. The most notable being the changeable armour load-outs which replace the equipment from Halo 3 with rechargeable enhancements such as sprint, jet packs and armour lock. These provide some welcome variation to give you an edge over the enemy, sprint is wisely the default as it helps new players used to a faster pace of gameplay adapt to the more deliberate tempo of movement.
Many of the core elements of its predecessors have returned. ODST's legacy is health packs, night vision & the omission of dual weilding, Combat Evolved supplies the Elites who provide marginally better AI than the Halo 2 Brutes with thier charging attacks. On the whole the AI is still as predictable as ever with Hunters requiring up close and personal shotgun attention to thier vulnerable points and Jackals with thier "peek out the side" shields which promote precise shooting, each of the enemy types on their own are easy to defeat. The challenge is when combinations of enemies are presented and you must use your 2 chosen weapons effectively. Weapon choice still plays a massive part of gameplay with a fair number of human and alien weapons to choose from; clips are usually short lived, requiring you to vary your loadout frequently, gun sounds and animations help to deliver good feedback for the shooting experience.
Missions take you through the campaign in a very familiar fashion, objective based gameplay pulling you through large levels broken up by vechicle combat and a healthy dose of story-heavy cut-scenes. For those who aren't fans of the franchise there isn't much ground breaking content here, which is a shame as when they do step out of their comfort zone in moments like the space combat or the final gameplay sequence it feels very fresh.
The class based nature of Noble team is also underused; besides the friendly AI being largely ineffective, thier specialist roles don't affect mission gameplay nearly as much as they should. A night time sniper mission for example starts well with some stealth kills however it's impossible to complete the level without resorting to the standard firefight tactics.
Reach's campaign doesn't hold any new secrets to discover, its ending is foretold which forces the writers to create meaningful stories within the game rather than rely on a huge reveal at the end. Character interactions and dialogue go a long way to add weight to some of the game's tent pole moments, the inevitability and finality of it all provides a fitting end for both the story and the developer.
On Heroic the campaign took me roughly 10-12 hours to complete, that time can be greatly reduced by playing through with 4 friends in Co-op, or greatly increased by attempting the achievement for completing the game solo on Legendary.
Whilst im more of a single player fan most of the audience will be selecting the matchmaking option long before they put the campaign to rest. Even though the on-line experience wont show its true colours until release day, it's clear to see Bungie have left the fans alot to remember them by. Whilst it's all very familiar, fans will feel it leaning more towards Combat Evolved's gameplay with some updates to keep it fresh and relevant when compared to the competition. Much like the campaign the armour loadouts work well here, with sprint easing new players in whilst more subtle abilities like decoy can give extra depth to a veteran's strategy. Adding even more depth is the credits currency which you can earn across all modes, not only do credits increase your overall rank but they can be spent in the armoury to customise your Spartan (or Elite if your so inclined), from their armour to thier voice and even extra animations after death.
Functionality has also been improved with some nice touches; maps can be voted on before each match, the improved party system also allows you to queue to join a game in progress, there are even options to let you filter the types of game you connect to including teamwork, tone and chattiness. A lot of thought has been put into the system in order to provide the best experience possible, Bungie's post game support is second to none, it may be unclear how much their newly found independence will affect this support but it's a decent bet that map packs, playlists and xp challenges will be updated to keep the community on its toes and active.
Co-operative fans will be happy to hear firefight returns with the much needed support for matchmaking allowing you to battle waves of enemies with a plethora of customisable options. In fact customisation is a large part of Reach's online options, Custom games allow you to create matches to your own specifications including objectives, weapons, maps and a whole lot more, coupled with the forge which allows users to edit the pre-made maps or use the blank canvas of Forge World to start from scratch, the possibilities are as they say, endless. Reach has more than enough content and options to keep players happy regardless of preference.
Oh look a gravity hammer!
- Wealth of modes/options
- Refined gameplay/balancing
- Best characters in a Halo game yet
Oh god not the gravity hammer!
- Underused class based gameplay
- Poor AI
Halo: Reach Xbox 360 Review
Whilst Reach is perhaps the definition of a known quantity that doesn't detract from the excellent production displayed here, the campaign is a solid tour through some of the most refined gameplay Bungie has ever constructed, whilst the kitchen sink design of the online options is nothing short of impressive.
Learning from the mistakes of its past Reach trims the fat and concentrates on doing what Halo has been doing for years but better than ever before. Whilst it might not change the minds of any sceptics, it will certainly put to rest the fears of fans. For even if without Bungie Halo fades away, Reach will burn bright for a while to come.
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