Halo Reach is a good game let me start by saying. It was always going to be special. This is Bungie’s last hurrah in the universe it created; a universe it has lived, breathed and loved for the last decade. Was there ever any doubt that the developer would go out in a blaze of glory? Whoever Microsoft drafts in to continue the Halo franchise from here on won’t just have to remember Reach, they’ll have to live up to it.
So, yes, it was always going to be good. But the question is: how good? A lot has changed since 2007 and Halo 3. The FPS landscape has shifted. Realism rules the roost. Time was, Bungie’s science-fiction goliath was untouchable, a shining beacon for the console shooter. But now heads have been turned by modern warfare and bad company, fizzing purple laser fire traded for hot lead and AC-130s.
So how? How does Bungie reclaim its crown in the over saturated genre it pioneered on consoles? Simple. By making people remember. Remember stepping out onto that ring for the first time, the cerulean blue sky carved in two by a gigantic structure. Remember the wide open spaces, flanking Elites and rushing Grunts. Remember outsmarting the giant, monstrous Hunter and tagging it with a sticky plasma grenade. Remember late nights in multiplayer, sniping across the abyss on Blood Gulch, or winning a match in a hail of plasma fire and a double kill. Remember Halo.
It’s unlikely to convert non-believers. Reach’s magnificence comes from an acute understanding of what makes Halo and its players tick. Bungie have often said of Reach that they wanted to recapture the feeling from Combat Evolved, going back to the series’ roots in order to deliver the best Halo yet. The truth stretches further than that. Bungie have plundered each and every Halo game
-from CE to ODST- taking the best bits and crafting them into something remarkable. This is Halo’s Greatest Hits. A blistering, breathless crescendo to a decade’s worth of work.
It’s the end, then, but also the beginning. Reach stands as a prequel to the Halo trilogy, the starting point for the Master Chief’s story. The Chief is nowhere to be seen here, however. Instead, you step into the a Mjolnir armour of a new recruit to Noble Team, a crack squad of Spartans (7-feet-tall cybernetically enhanced superhumans) assigned to Reach to stave off a Covenant attack.
Your character, Noble Six, is a deliberate cipher, with customisable armour that you carry with you through singleplayer, co-op and online. The rest of Noble Team dutifully fulfil their clichés: the stoic leader, the gentle giant, the tough chick with a foreign accent. The dialogue between the team during the few moments they take a breather is flat and overwrought, desperately missing the B-movie bark of a Sergeant Johnson or wry observation of Cortana. A shame, but it matters little. Bungie has never really been a master of narrative detail, preferring to focus on the big picture. Reach takes place at the height of humanity’s war with the covenant, and we are losing. Compared to the bright, verdant colours of the original Halo, Reach has a far more subdued palette. Scorched earth, dusty landscapes and abandoned, pockmarked buildings betray a planet under siege. Few areas are the same in Reach, but even in the brightest of places, such as the lush city of Alexandria, Reach’s inhabitants scramble for shelter as the Covenant hordes lay the city to waste.
The ferocious broad strokes of Reach’s space opera are what invest you most in humanity’s plight. It’s all rendered in a brand new engine, with Halo 3’s mechanics gutted and replaced with a bespoke formula for Reach’s expansive skirmishing. It’s still absolutely Halo
-fast and frenzied- but it’s a little heavier. The lead bullets of the human weaponry punch through Covenant flesh with more visceral force, while the belching plasma of an alien rifle fizzes and crackles as it engulfs your prey.
Reach distils what made Halo such a trailblazer in the first place: the combat is extraordinarily good fun. At a time when shooters are preoccupied with the idea of clattering their audience with a sledgehammer, sending them hurtling down a scripted path of corridors and jack-in-the-box opponents in a relentless war of attrition, Halo remembers that, above all else, the art of battle is what counts the most. And the developers at Bungie are masters of their craft.
The theatres of war are huge, wide-open sandboxes crawling with the Covenant. While direct objectives are hardly the stuff of wild invention each skirmish is different to the last, with remarkable freedom of expression for your gunplay. You choose the tactics to engage the enemy, but Bungie guide your way with eclectic scattered weaponry, vantage points from which to take the high ground, and rocks to dive behind to catch your breath and recharge your shield. Wide open and free-form, but meticulously designed to offer the most enjoyment.
The new armour abilities play to this ethos. Mapped to the left bumper, these are rechargeable actions from shields to jetpacks replacing Halo’s one shot equipment packs. You can only carry one armour augmentation at a time and your default loadout is a simple sprint. The sprint is so useful in battle that you will be inclined to stick with such a flexible ability throughout most of the game. It’s not something Bungie are oblivious to, however, with some set pieces offering up a selection of armour abilities that demand to be tried out.
While the trajectory of the campaign is set to ferocious, relentless escalation throughout, Bungie has learned when to take a timeout or mix things up a little. The beauty of the combat is that few battles are the same, but whenever the sensory overload of Reach’s combat cacophony becomes too much, Bungie switches the focus or slams on the brakes. Vehicle sections hardly lower the pulse, but thrashing a Warthog around Reach’s shores, admiring the glistening scenery as it thunders by is a different kind of exciting.
Throughout the ebb and flow of the campaign there is always one constant: The Covenant. Halo’s alien invaders have always been the unsung star of the series. Here they are at their best; feral but organised packs of zealots dedicated to their cause of wiping humanity from the universe. The enemy AI in Combat Evolved was groundbreaking at the time, it arguably hasn’t been bettered in an FPS, and here it’s still as devastatingly effective. Bungie professes the behavioural routines of the Covenant are simplistic. It’s probably true, but the skill comes in blending the traits of each Covenant species into tactical hit squads. The monkey-esque Grunts are cannon fodder, prepared to charge headlong at you just so the more elegant Elites can flank to gain the advantage. Giant Brutes provide the muscle, while the Jackals and new foe Skirmishers hunt in razor-sharp packs. And best of all, in Reach, the Hunters are terrifying again.
The thing with the Covenant is simple: they are just a joy to fight. It’s exciting, emergent stuff, fuelled by the decisions you make over your tactics. The dispersion of weaponry demands you mix up which guns you use and the game is better for it. Ammo isn’t infinite, so you think carefully about whether to take your favourite gun with little ammo, or trade it for a fully loaded alternative.
In fact, Reach is undoubtedly the toughest Halo in quite some time. Heroic is still the best way to play, but even Normal will test your mettle across at least 10 hours, more if you are tackling it on Legendary. However, frustration can rear its ugly head at times, usually down to the dynamic checkpointing. Its fabulous for 90% of the time, saving your progress after you clear out another barricade of Covenant but on some occasions it will either not kick in when it should, sending you back more than you would like, or it saves in the heat of battle, leaving you in an impossible situation. It’s not a pervasive issue, but erratic enough that it can’t be ignored.
By the time you’ve fought your way to the bitter end, exhausted and broken after a final siege, you’ll probably want to jump straight into multiplayer. Reach’s online component is, frankly, an embarrassment of riches, putting even the biggest and best shooters out there to shame. There’s the greatly expanded Firefight, where you must fend off hordes of Covenant with a bunch of pals. There is the new and improved Forge mode that, while strictly speaking still not a full map editor, will allow industrious types to build some spectacular user-generated content.
Forge is indicative of Bungie’s community driven pride. As with Halo 3, Bungie have seen how Halo players have tailored game-types into “Gentlemen’s Agreement” games, where the rules are enforced by the players rather than the game itself. Bungie, never one to miss a trick, has further bolstered the playlist by adding even more variants, all of which are fantastic additions simply because they are enormous fun.
The teamwork and community vibe is what Reach’s multiplayer thrives on. It has resisted the temptation to include Modern Warfare-style player progression, instead relying on fun, balance and skill. Players can choose a loadout with different default weapons and armour abilities, but everyone gets the same choice to keep matches on an even footing. Points are assigned for good performance, but for cosmetic purposes only, allowing you to personalise your Spartan’s armour in great detail.
With the inventive match-types and eclectic weaponry, Reach’s multiplayer places its premium squarely on fun. The kinetic gunplay from the campaign makes the transition beautifully, although it’s a bit of a disappointment to discover the mêlée attack is still overpowered. But Reach’s action still lends itself to grander tales than a few naff boxing matches. It’s storming the opponents base on a Mongoose with a mate, its a fluke sticky grenade that wipes out three of the opposing team; it’s crowning some poor fellow who’s trying to gun down your cunningly deployed hologram; its lobbing a grenade into a wall and taking out you and a couple of companions, where luckily the biggest explosion is one of laughter. It is multiplayer told in stories, rather than numbers and score-sheets.
Bungie wouldn’t have it any other way. Halo is their story, and with Reach you feel they have just closed the book. It may not have the lasting impact of Combat Evolved, but as a refinement of the idea
-the essence- of Halo, it is their finest work yet. And maybe, just maybe, they want Halo to end right here and now, as they finally close this glorious circle that they have created. When you touch down on Reach as Noble Six, your leader, Carter, takes you aside and says: “You are stepping into shoes we would rather were left unfilled.” Sounds like a message. And on the evidence of this spectacular send-off, filling Bungie’s size 12s might just be impossible