Remember Reach, Remember Bungie...
Back in 1999, when there was no Gametrailers or YouTube, avid gamers would rely on a large culture of magazines and demo discs to learn about the next biggest thing in gaming. Occasionally, we may have even come across that rarest of occurrences, the gaming television show. One specific show that I remember with great appeal was Game Over on the now defunct satellite channel .TV. Hosted by Andy Collins, the show provided tongue in cheek despatches from the video gaming world. The Game assassins would review the latest games like Brunswick Pro Circuit Bowling with much relish, whilst the space girls focused on tips in space. The show also marked the humble TV origins of a one Matt Berry, before he went on to greater things, namely Dark Place, The IT crowd and of course those Volvic Mineral Water adverts starring Tyrannosaurus Alan. I am going somewhere with this intro... Essentially, it was on this show, that I was first introduced to a game that was specifically designed for the Mac by little known developer Bungie. The demo footage revealed a simple but staggering in concept, a buggy, complete with realistic suspension being chased by two purple hover bikes across a strange alien landscape. This was my introduction to Halo. There was talk from the developers of a ring planet, and open ended combat, but there was also talk of co-operative gameplay. The buggy, of which I would come to know of as a Warthog could seat three players. One would drive, whilst another manned the machine gun turret and the third rode shotgun. This was enough to send my thirteen year old mind into overdrive. Co-operative gaming hadn’t come into the mainstream as of yet. We had our split screen Goldeneye, our two player Machine Hunter or Streets of Rage, we may have even been lucky enough to play Counterstrike on a decent connection but the point is, co-operative gaming just didn’t exist as it does today, but it was built into Halo from day one.
I quickly remembered the names Halo and Bungie, to the point I even played Oni, Bungie’s pre-Halo game, a decent enough brawler with a manga art style and a mechanic involving performance enhancing drugs. I watched the development of Halo closely, as it went from a third person shooter for the Mac to first person shooter as the secret weapon behind Microsoft’s new gaming platform The Xbox, the game that was now called Halo: Combat Evolved. I then got an xbox with a copy of Halo, and the rest is history. What I am trying to say is that I am a fan of Halo. I had always been a fan of first person shooters, from Doom to Unreal Tournament, to Half-Life and Perfect Dark, but what Halo did was open the doors and define how first person shooters should be played. With friends. Halo became the reason to buy an xbox, to have 16 player LAN parties. To say Halo broke new ground is an understatement. Halo brought console based first person shooters into vogue, effectively opening up the floodgates. Before Halo, there was only Goldeneye on the N64. There was of course the brilliant Perfect Dark, but nobody brought it, despite it being ahead of the times. Elsewhere what was there? Medal of Honour? Red Faction? If there was no Halo, there would probably be no Call of Duty and certainly no Modern Warfare 2 generating over a billion dollars in sales, as of now the most profitable entertainment event in history. But certainly, Halo did prove that first person shooters could thrive away from the mouse and keyboard and into the more profitable arena of console gaming. It is for this reason that Halo is both loved and hated so passionately.
Halo: Reach is Bungie’s fifth and final Halo game before they go off to spend the next ten years in bed with Activision developing this new supposedly ground breaking IP. Based on the Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund, which was initially written as a prequel to the original game, Reach effectively brings the franchise full circle on itself. Reach itself is a planet, where a fairly large human colony has been based. The planet is also home to the Spartan super soldier program, of which the series’ iconic Master Chief was spawned. The whole marketing strategy behind Reach has been based on the notion that the player already knows what is going to happen to the planet, even if they are unaware of the surrounding fiction. For those who are unaware, Reach is doomed, attacked and glassed by the alien forces of the Covenant. At the start of the original Halo, the Pillar of Autumn, the ship that houses Master Chief and Cortanna, makes a blind jump into slip space after escaping Reach. It is here that they miraculously come across the Halo ring world which kicks off the trilogy.
Halo: Reach has you play as a new recruit to Noble team, a team of Spartans who are supposed to precursor the master chief. Like the Master Chief and the Rookie from last year’s ODST you are a faceless member known only as Noble Six. The strength of the character is that he is entirely of the player’s own creation. The game grants a plethora of armour that you can customise your super soldier with. You unlock new variants as you progress throughout the game, these variants are completely cosmetic and do not affect the way you play the game but they emphasise the connection of the player to the character. You take your character as you initially begin to investigate a distress call from a remote farming location, where it quickly becomes apparent that the planet has been invaded by Covenant forces. What is immediately clear, is a darker more brooding atmosphere, the Halo trilogy feels like a lucid dream in comparison. That said, the game progresses much in the way previous Halos have, you have vague open world levels where you may have a warthog. Other levels will give you a tank, whilst others will encourage flight.
The campaign is excellent in my opinion, probably the best of the series. Despite being of similar length to previous games, the campaign suffers very little down time. Halo 2 and 3 specifically suffered from grind. Piloting a tank is usually fun for the first time but a second time it starts to feel a little stale. In reach, the tank is only limited to one level, which is just about right. The absence of the flood is definitely to the campaign’s benefit as well. Fighting the Covenant has always been the best part of the halo campaign and it is certainly never been better until Reach. The AI has improved and the covenant are once again a threatening prescence. The return of the elites is particularly a welcome re-addition to the series, after suffering the Brutes since the third act of Halo 2. Though the brutes do appear midway through the game, they are nowhere near as tough as the revamped elites, who are, through lack of a better word, ‘proper bastards’. When I first played through the game, I played on heroic difficulty and was quickly cut down upon first encountering the elites on the first level. When the tougher elites are around, you are constantly reaching for the plasma/UNSC pistol combo to despatch them before they swamp you. It gives the alien menace a different energy, they no longer speak in English, grunts no longer run away from you screaming, ‘little people first’. The combat is much tighter, when you are on foot, the holy trinity of gun, grenade and melee works as well as it ever has. There are fewer weapons than other shooters, but every weapon has a particular use. The reworked battle rifle, the DMR is a favourite of mine, but I always find keeping my assault rifle in support in case I need to pepper large swarms of enemies.
The fifth mission is a particular favourite. It begins with you on foot, steamrolling covenant forces across a beach until you get to the launch site, where you begin the much publicised ‘space’ part in which you board a space combat craft and jet up into the planet’s upper orbit. The combat section essentially plays like Lylatt Wars or the space sections in Battlefront 2 as you swat banshees and the shielded seraphs. There is a brief cut-scene in which human forces prepare their next offensive against the covenant, whilst huge explosions silently engulf the planet’s surface like ripples in water, all to the sound of Martin O’Donnell’s majestic score. This would not be a proper review, if I didn’t pay homage to the score, though much of the magic of Halo lies in the music, like the greatest space operas, lies in Martin O’Donnell’s compositions. The space combat is kept quite brief, never outstaying its welcome but leaving a little wanting. The day when multiplayer incorporates space combat with a simultaneous ground battle is the day you get one step closer to making the greatest Star Wars game ever. If Bungie had incorporated this into multiplayer then they may have just revolutionised the genre once again, but maybe this idea is too ambitious for this current generation of consoles. Going back to the level, it progresses with you boarding a covenant space craft in zero gravity, your bullets muffled by the vacuum of space. With the atmosphere that very much conveys the feel of the ‘belly of the beast level’ from the original Halo you fight your way through the corridors of the space craft until you reach the control room, before escaping the ship before it all goes up in a glorious explosion.
The Fall of Reach is undoubtedly a catchy title for a book, but is it a good narrative for a game? How can a genre like the first person shooter, which essentially relies on conveying the fantasy of empowerment over hordes of enemies, tell the story of mass genocide? Where not even your own character makes it out alive no less. It is an intriguing theme to be sure and it is certainly not the first game to try to grapple with this concept. The modern warfare series has frequently done this, probably most effectively in COD4, when you control a US marine as he staggers through a silenced warzone under the shadow of a mushroom cloud, doomed. In Reach, you finish the campaign, successfully completing your mission and all that stops you from the end credits is a firefight section. The atmosphere is dusty and covenant drop ships roam the skies like sharks at feeding time. As you take damage, your visor cracks and splinters until finally you are beaten. Though it does not prevent you from trying to survive the onslaught, just to see whether you can survive Reach, or see that final cutscene when your character walks off into the sunset, alive to fight another day. It was the only way to finish the game really, but compared to say Modern Warfare, where you were constantly dying as you were running down that frigging hill to get to the helicopter whereupon the narrative kills you anyway. Reach was a lot more satisfying, but I think it comes down to mood.
Mood is what elevates Halo over other first person shooters and it is something that only real Halo fans can see. There has always been a sense in Halo that you are exploring and fighting in a real world, more so in Reach, where Bungie have spent more time on level design to create a believable world. A common criticism of the Halo trilogy was that it did not have much variety in its indoor sections, which were essentially the same maps stuck together. Conflict in Halo, always made you feel you were part of something big. Enemies don’t just spawn into the map, they are usually dropped in via drop ships. They feel as if they are part of a larger machine; with you, the player, in the position of antagonist. I like the Call of Duty games, don’t get me wrong. But I do feel that Halo has something special. Whereas Call of Duty offers a shooter experience that is grounded in realism and tighter shooting mechanics, the joy of Halo multiplayer has always been in the variables. It is about walking into a man cannon at just the right time when you hijack a marauding banshee in midair. It is about tagging that bastard with the awesome helmet, ending his spree in a phenomenally cathartic blue explosion. It is about rocket firefight, where you gleefully jetpack over a hordes of grunts with unlimited ammo. It is about careering through the campaign in a warthog with your friends, feeling invincible. This is part of the reason why Bungie implemented the theatre section to the game, so that you could capture these monumental moments, but it was also to display the sheer amount of activity that was going on at one time, whilst you were seeking to hi-jack that ghost. In Halo 3 for example, whilst you were tackling the scarab, you could use theatre to focus on one of the hovering pelicans, you can see the soldiers in its hold. You could see allied AI picking targets. With Halo, there is little in the sense of smoke and mirrors, that is rife in so many other video games, the battle is all there to be displayed, scrutinised from every angle it is as if Bungie dare you to attempt to catch their engine out.
I haven’t even begun to review the other components of the game. The multiplayer, the firefight modes, the challenge structure or even Forge World, which now allows players to create their own maps. Forgeworld is effectively a gigantic map, a playground where you can spawn in various items and objects, creating your own structures for multiplayer. The hardened PC player is likely to guffaw at this mode in comparison to modding culture that surrounds titles like Half-Life, but it is still there, should players want to milk more out of their game. Judging what has been accomplished with Forge in Halo 3, we are going to be seeing all manner of ingeniously made structures. If I may make one request, a massive Mad Max style Thunder Dome, with interlinking raceways for use of Mongoose.
After the understated release of Halo 3 ODST last year, Reach is a return to form for the franchise. It does not really do anything new with the franchise it is an accumulation and a perfecting of everything that has made the franchise great over the last nine years. There are a few negatives, the frame rate chugs at times when things get extra chaotic and the checkpoint system can be a little frustrating. Regardless, these aren’t even scratches in the game’s reputation. It is a complete package, the campaign is endlessly replayable, designed with a new found affinity for four player co-op, when that fails, the multiplayer suite will have players playing for years to come. Halo and the master chief are sure to return to us in some form. Microsoft will be sure of that. Whether it will be as good without Bungie is another matter.