The Halo fan's dream game.
2004 - the year online gaming on consoles exploded with Halo 2's stunning multiplayer.
2007 - the year Bungie redefined the word epic, and delivered the complete Halo package with Halo 3.
2009 - the year Bungie created one of the most addicting co-op experiences ever in Halo 3: ODST.
Now, it's 2010. Halo: Reach is the end of an era; a send-off for one of the most respected FPS developers in the industry as Bungie end their association with the Halo franchise and go off to work on something new for Activision. It's fitting, then, that that Halo: Reach is the Halo fan's dream game - an epic campaign, tonnes of multiplayer content and the same fun gameplay.
Now, whilst the multiplayer is what will keep people playing, the campaign is what Bungie have been pushing. The incredible amount of money spent by Microsoft on marketing this game with some truly stunning live action shorts has all been focused on one tagline: Remember Reach. Just the thought of fighting a battle that is destined to be lost against the Covenant in all their glory is probably enough to get a die hard Halo fan wet around the trousers, but what surprised me is how well the story was told. Last year's ODST was an interesting diversion which suffered because the one dude that everyone associates Halo with wasn't there: Master Chief. Heck, Cortana wasn't there either and it wasn't even set on a Halo. Whilst all those things ring true in Reach (although a few cameos are excellent fan service), the story is strong enough to keep even the casual fan engaged.
You take control of Noble 6 (who, for the first time, is your own customizable character rather than the set appearance of Master Chief or an ODST), the new member of the elite Spartan squad known as Noble team, as they are drafted in to help protect the human planet of Reach. Now, everyone knows how the story ends - the adverts told us as much - but the way in which you get to the end is full of some really cool plot points as well as some likeable characters and great fan service. Bungie have created a fantastic universe full of rich lore, and all their experience of telling stories within said universe comes to the fore in Reach. The Spartans are likeable, you get to know them far more than you got to know Master Chief over the course of the games (although admittedly none of them are nearly as badass), and like I said, the cameos from characters in prior games are handled well without being thrust into your face as if to say 'HEY! REMEMBER THIS GUY?!' The campaign's tone is spot on and is in great contrast to previous games in the series which were all about Master Chief kicking arse and saving the universe. Reach is solemn and depressing: just when Noble team think they've achieved a great victory, something happens that makes them think all hope is gone.
Whilst the story is very well done, I did have a few problems with the pacing of the campaign. Reach starts very slowly, and it took me a good two or three missions before I was really back into my stride and the missions became more interesting. The first few missions held your hand as you moved through fighting off dropship after dropship of Covenant with no real variety. From then on, though, the campaign really picked up and, whilst I don't think it quite reaches the epic scale of Halo 3, it gets pretty damn close. There are intense gun fights, large scale battles, vehicle segments, a space sequence, an anti-gravity fight scene and plenty else. Reach's core gameplay is spiced up a bit with new weapons and vehicles as you'd expect, but the stand out new gameplay mechanic is the armour abilities, including jetpacks, sprint, shields and more. These are available in all modes and really add a new level of strategy to the game.
However, the campaign does feel unbalanced, the first few missions drag on, the next five or so are brilliant and then it crawls towards the ending with a tedious final mission. Don't get me wrong, I think this is a very strong campaign and it took me over eight hours to complete on Heroic difficulty which is a pretty lengthy shooter, when you think that Modern Warfare 2 took me less than 6 hours on Veteran, and some people even less than that. Of course, with the usual four-player co-op (which finally supports matchmaking!) as well as the scoring and skull powerups, there's plenty of incentive to go through the campaign multiple times.
As well as the campaign, there is plenty else to sink your teeth into. The excellent Firefight mode from ODST returns and is just as addictive as ever. In my opinion it's definitely the best spin on the standard survival mode in any shooter, beating Left 4 Dead 2's Survival mode and Gears of War 2's Horde. The maps are well designed and all the armour abilities, weapons and even some vehicles cross over from the campaign as well. The big change in this mode from ODST is that you can now play as the Covenant. Whilst we eagerly await Beast Mode in Gears of War 3, Bungie has provided its own spin on this cool idea by allowing players to step into the shoes (do aliens wear shoes?) of the Covenant. Firefight is also expanded by the same awesome customisation options that you find in the multiplayer, allowing you to tweak the behaviour of your enemies and that sort of thing. Thankfully, Firefight now supports matchmaking as well, so if your friends aren't around you can jump in with some strangers. Sure, they might be pricks, but at least you can play some co-op, right? Overall, Firefight is far more interesting and feature rich than ODST's version of it.
Multiplayer has always been a massive part of Halo, and Reach delivers competitive online goodness in spades. There are tonnes of game types, plenty of maps and the ranking system has been given a much needed overhaul, putting it more in-line with Call of Duty. Of the new modes, Invasion is definitely the stand out. Unlike many of the game types, one team actually plays as Elites in Invasion, and they come with their own set of special moves. The Elites' objective is to assault a giant industrial complex, fight their way to the rear, steal a data core and take it to a waiting Phantom for removal from the area. The Spartans have a time limit in which to stop the Elites from advancing to each stage of the map. The Elites basically have to complete objectives to push the Spartans back and eventually capture the data core. Each time the Elites advance, more weapons and vehicles become available and the classes upgrade. It's really, really good.
The multiplayer can be taken even further with the Forge mode, which allows you to edit maps or create entirely new ones using Forge World, a huge open environment in which the only limit to your map-making creativity is your imagination. Like Halo 3, players are also able to create their own game types to play with friends, which can then be uploaded to their File Share space for others to download.
File Sharing also extends to the familiar Theater mode, which records all your recent exploits in all modes of Reach and allows you to edit clips and photos to show to your friends. These can also be uploaded to Bungie's website to show off to an even wider community.
Visually, this is by far the best Halo game yet. The game looks sharp and detailed, especially the character models, and some of the vistas are stunning. The epic scale of the war is also felt through some fantastic action sequences. This visual splendour has a downside though, in that the framerate can dip quite noticeably during cut scenes and also during gameplay. On the plus side, the cut scenes are real-time, meaning that your custom Noble 6 will look just as you want him to in all modes of the game. After the dated looking Halo 3 and the embarrassingly ugly ODST, it's good to see Reach update its graphics to stay competitive with the behemoths of Gears of War and Call of Duty.
As always, Martin O'Donnell's music score is brilliant. There are some familiar tracks which will send a shiver down your spine, but the new tracks do a great job of setting the tone. The voice acting is also impressive - in fact, it's arguably the best in the series.
Like I said at the start, Halo: Reach is the dream game for any Halo fan. It has everything you probably loved from prior games in the series, but it doesn't ever tread outside its comfort zone which in the end keeps it away from the legendary status that other games in the series have achieved. This is a great send-off for Bungie as developers of the Halo franchise, but when Microsoft takes over the series it might need to put its creative hat on; for all its brilliance, the Spartans are looking rusty.
-Well told story with great voice acting.
-The same old top quality gameplay.
-Amazing online multiplayer and co-op.
-Absolutely tons of features.
-Campaign gets off to a slow start.
-A little too familiar.
Final Judgement: Halo: Reach is the dream game for any Halo fan. It has everything you probably loved about the prior games in the series, and is a great send-off for Bungie as the developers.