Best Halo Game, but is it enough?
Halo Reach is by far the best of the Halo games with its technical polish and vast feature set, but in many ways it feels like Bungie has only caught up to other current gen games on the market. Compared to previous Halo games, Reach has the best directed story, but it still plays second or third fiddle to the strongest component of the franchise which is in its gameplay.
In Halo Reach you play as Noble 6, the newest member of Spartan Noble team. Noble team has been sent to Reach to investigate some activity suspected to be rebel activity. When they arrive they discover that the Covenant is on Reach, and they end up getting caught in the full scale invasion. From then on they’re sent on missions playing defense against the Covenant. Soon it becomes apparent that they’re in a losing battle, and in order to win the day they must protect the UNSC’s most important secrets not the least of which is the location of Earth.
The missions themselves aren’t anything particularly new, but the presentation is better than it’s ever been in Halo. Set piece moments during missions don’t fall flat like in previous Halo games where it felt like you could miss it if you were facing the wrong direction. Reach does a better job at directing the eye and making sure that you see what they want you to see. They also do a good job of giving you the sense that you’re part of a big invasion as you frequently see battle activity going on in the distance. Cutscenes are actually cinematic looking this time around with more stylized camera angles. At the end of the day the story isn’t anything to write home about, but the presentation manages to make the most of it.
The characters are still pretty generic and there’s little to no character development. That said, artistically they went through more effort to distinguish them. You have the woman good at technical stuff, the heavy guy with the chaingun, the guy with a skull design on his helmet constantly playing with his knife, then you have generic leader guy and generic blank slate guy who you play. An irritating thing about previous Halo games is you were usually dealing with army grunts with their stereotypical army talk (which only really sounded convincing coming out of Nolan North). Here they’re all elite soldiers so there’s not as much testosterone and the game is better for it. You won’t grow to love these characters, but the voice acting and character design give a good sense of realism.
Reach’s gameplay is still the Halo that you know and love. Since you’re a Spartan that means you have regenerating shields again, and also they’ve added a health bar which can be replenished via health packs a la ODST. There’s no dual wielding but there are a ton of new weapons added to your arsenal including Halo’s original magnum pistol complete with zoom. There’re a bevy of Covenant weapons which gives a nice sense of variety. The other big additions are the armor abilities like sprint, jetpacks, regenerating shields, decoy holograms, optical camouflage and dodging. Some of those are only available in multiplayer. Sprint was the most welcome addition because normal walking speed can feel exceedingly slow.If you sneak up on an enemy you can hold the melee button for a 3rd person assassination move. I approve.
You’ll face the widest variety of Covenant enemies in Reach too. Elites are back in all their forms, there are a number of different grunts, Brutes, Hunters, Jackals and some more spry Jackals which you’ll see hopping and jumping all over the place. They all put up a good fight, and often they show up in such numbers that you’ll realize your best course of action is to just run away. The game has a lot of these moments which I think work great to give a sense of how overwhelming the invasion of the planet really is. There’s a brief space combat mission too which is pretty fun and gives some nice variety.The strongest part of the story is actually the atmosphere and tone set in the game. Like I said before, the core story and missions are pretty generic, but the game does a good job of setting up the sense of the invasion via gameplay and also the design of the surroundings. The Halo trilogy just felt like running from one room to another shooting or one rocky area to another shooting stuff that has been placed there. But in Reach it feels like you’re actually somewhere real and lived in as Covenant pods drop from the sky all around you.
The graphics are technically and artistically better than anything that has come before. You can really see the progression from Halo 3 which technically looks better than Halo 2, but artistically wasn’t much of a leap. ODST upped the ante with more stylized and atmospheric lighting. Finally in Reach everything just looks a lot shinier, but also with more gritty details. Character models finally look like real faces with actual details and features. Previous Halo character models were quite frankly an embarrassment to this generation of games. In Reach everything from the water, the energy weapon effects, the gun models, weathered armor, rocky environments, buildings and backgrounds all look really great.
I signed up for an Xbox Gold account because they were giving discounts on yearly subscriptions, and also I knew that multiplayer is arguably the main reason to get a Halo game. I’ve played a decent amount of multiplayer and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Just looking at all the options available in the custom game area I can tell that you can just tweak the heck out of the game and never repeat a scenario unless you want to. There’s a lot of incentive to play a lot because of the level up system where you get credits for how well you play and also the daily and weekly challenges which server as in-game achievements that reward you more credits. As you level up you can buy and customize the look of your armor.
I still haven’t played all the multiplayer modes but there are a great number indeed. There are a lot of variants on simple deathmatch like what weapons are used. Also if you’re playing Spartans or Elites makes for very different experiences. There’s free for all, team deathmatch, big team deathmatch, firefight vs computer AIs, capture the flag, assault, and even vehicular race multiplayer where you zoom around a map trying to hit the checkpoints. My favorite so far is head hunter where you collect skulls from fallen enemies and return them to a designated areas for points. I still haven’t played Infection where some players are “zombies” that turn others to zombies when they kill them. Add on the different armor abilities and different maps and there’s quite a lot to keep you busy for a very very long time.
The 3rd person assassinations are a very welcome addition with their multitude of animations. There’re a lot of other features like the ability to save your games and share with friends. Efforts have also been made to cut down on ragequitting, and also you can set preferences for the type of person you want to game with (hopefully to avoid jerky foul mouthed racist, homophobic teenagers). For the level builders you have Forge where you could go nuts making all sorts of crazy levels to play.
So is Halo Reach the best Halo game? I think it definitely is. Is Halo Reach OMG A+++++ THIS GAME GOES TO 11!!! No. If you just take the singleplayer experience I still put the game in average 80 score territory. Truth is, that except for gameplay, Halo has always been lagging behind. Story, art design, technical qualities have been playing catch up to the other current gen games on the market. Gears of War was a launch title and its bump mapping and detail looked really great. I feel like the implementation of story, graphics and set pieces while better than they’ve ever been still aren’t something that wow me like other games have done on the 360.
Multiplayer is phenomenal of course, but playing a Halo game still doesn’t give me that feeling of immersion that makes me love a game like Dead Space, Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed 2. A really great game or movie gives you a satisfying glow where you’re not just watching the credits to show appreciation, but you feel like you just went through a transformative experience.
I think I can say definitively now that Halo just doesn’t push all of my buttons. Will I continue to play more multiplayer? Absolutely, but the whole game still isn’t one of those games that I can see myself replaying years later out of nostalgia. I do think that the one thing I’m missing right now is playing Halo with friends competitively or cooperatively because that seems to be what people enjoy most. I appreciate what Halo has done for modern console gaming, but I’m ultimately a gamer more focused on story than multiplayer features so.