Will You Remember Reach?
It has been a decade since the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, and still I think of it as one of the greatest first person shooters of all time. A true masterpiece of console gaming, Halo innovated the genre with regenerating shields, a two weapon limit, drivable vehicles, and console controls that didn't feel stiff and awkward. As groundbreaking as the game was, the FPS genre has come a very long way since 2000, and those features are all considered standard elements of modern games. Has Halo managed to evolve with the times, or has it fallen behind?
Bungie made some big promises during the development of Halo Reach. They claimed to be shooting for a darker, sobering tone, complemented by redesigned enemies and a larger emphasis on exploring the people behind the Spartan helmets. They promised to show us a Halo game unlike any we had seen before, darker, grittier, more absorbing and intense. Bungie even went as far as to say that players would be able to interact with the civilians and wildlife of Reach during the campaign. For about five minutes, Bungie keeps this promise. There is a palpable tension in the air as Noble Team is dispatched to investigate a strange disturbance in the rural plains of Reach. Everything is eerily silent as Noble Team works their way through civilian housing and farmland searching for clues. Then the Covenant sort of just show up out of the blue, and the game becomes the same old Halo we've all known since 2000.
Almost none of what Bungie promised for the campaign makes any significant difference in how the game plays out. The "darker" tone still comes across as more Saturday-morning-cartoon than serious drama, with all of the characters resembling cardboard cutouts in their depth and complexity. The story wraps up in a way that could have been cool but just comes across as kind of stupid. The wildlife that was supposed to be crawling all over Reach is eerily absent, much like any sign of civilian life. Sure, I saw a pickup truck here and there, and maybe a dead body or two, but after the first mission or two it's like Bungie forgot about those promises and went back to doing the same thing they've always done with Halo games.
And when I say the same, I mean the same. Almost none of the issues from previous games have been fixed. The Spartans still stand up and un-zoom their guns when they're shot, vehicles still control like their tires are coated in butter, and a lot of the weapons still feel like airsoft guns. It gives me the same feeling that Halo 3 did; it's like Bungie wanted to change some things up, but they were too afraid that their loyal fans would become discontented.
That's not to say that nothing has changed, though. The addition of Armor Abilities is the one significant gameplay upgrade that Reach introduces, and they do manage to make Reach feel a bit less stagnant. The abilities are Sprint, Hologram, Armor Lock, Shield Bubble, Jetpack, and Cloak, and in multiplayer they change the game up significantly. In the campaign, however, most of the abilities are useless other than Sprint and Jetpack, and while temporary flight is always cool, touting the ability to sprint in a first person shooter in 2010 is just laughable. Sure, it gives the game a greater sense of speed and momentum, but this is something that should have been implemented in Halo 3 three years ago.
If it sounds like I hate Halo Reach right now, rest assured that I don't. The campaign is still fun, and infinitely more so with a few extra players and team scoring on. It's just that we were promised something different, and Reach is just more of the same. Bungie didn't even bother to fix the flaws from past games, and as a result it feels like I've done all of this before. The campaign mode in Halo Reach is fairly amusing, but still a failure in my eyes.
Multiplayer, on the other hand, is the greatest it has ever been in the series. There are a staggering number of options available to customize every mode of play, from Forge to Team Deathmatch. Firefight in particular has seen a huge upgrade. Online matchmaking has been added, and the customization options are on par with any of the competitive multiplayer modes. Make no mistake, Firefight will be a big addiction for a large portion of the Halo Reach population. The campaign co-op has seen a similar boost in quality, largely thanks to the addition of online matchmaking. It is now possible to jump into any mission of the game on any difficulty with complete strangers, a godsend for those of us attempting to make it through on Legendary.
The competitive multiplayer shines as well. The new maps and weapons are great, and the Armor Abilities add further variety to the crazy action. Unfortunately, Bungie has missed an opportunity to make the game even better by allowing players to customize their loadouts, instead opting to include pre-made classes in all of the modes. Few of the classes really gelled with me, but at least they add variety. Another disappointment on the multiplayer side is the Invasion mode. This is essentially a copy/paste job of Battlefield: Bad Company's Rush mode, but the trouble is that Bad Company did it way better. In Reach, players must stand in a certain area for a certain amount of time to destroy an enemy base. This lacks any of the tension of planting a bomb and protecting it until it detonates in Bad Company. Invasion's other problem is that it only doles out certain loadouts at predetermined times in the match, so it feels very limiting in the beginning of each match. These loadouts also shuffle weapons and powers around at the end of the match, so while the assault rifle class has Sprint in the beginning, in the end it has Jetpack, which doesn't really make any sense. Nitpicking aside, Halo Reach sports the series' strongest multiplayer suite by far, and Halo fans will be keeping this near the top of Xbox Live's most played list for years to come.
Graphically, Halo has never been better. The models and environments look fairly sharp, but it's the sweeping vistas off in the distance that really took my breath away. There are a few weird instances of slowdown during cutscenes, which is especially puzzling given that the graphical hiccups are most present during scenes in which nothing is really happening. I also encountered some serious frame rate hitches while playing through the game on Legendary, but for some reason I didn't notice anything of the sort when playing on lower difficulties. The audio, as always, is bombastic and riveting. The voice actors do a serviceable job with a cookie-cutter script, and gunfire sounds decent enough. Overall the presentation of the game is quite strong.
Buy Halo Reach for the multiplayer or don't buy it at all. The single player manages to entertain, but it's still a big letdown. Bungie delivers on almost none of the promises they made when the game was announced, and it honestly feels redundant after playing through the four previous Halo games. Most of the daring new ideas are presented in the multiplayer modes, and they are greater because of that. Great online play can only take a game so far, though. The rest of the game feels far to similar to every other Halo game out there, and it really does hurt the final product. A decade from now, will I remember Reach? Probably not.