Halo: Reach Review
Halo: Reach has a lot on its shoulders. Not only does it have a legacy of excellent shooters to follow, it’s the last of its kind from developer Bungie. It’s easy to imagine them crumbling under the pressure, delivering a lot of half-baked ideas with middling execution. Overcoming the odds, Halo: Reach is without a doubt the best Halo game yet. Whether it’s the single player or multiplayer, there isn’t a facet of the game that hasn’t seen a significant improvement.
Thanks to an engine overhaul, Bungie successfully captured the feeling that you're participating in a tiny piece of a massive, ongoing battle. Certain missions pan out to impressive lengths and show off draw-distances reserved usually for open-world games. The visuals run the gamut of “good-looking” to “gorgeous.” Environments are massive, yet still look beautiful. Weapon and character models look great, and don’t suffer visual hits even in large battles. Bungie pushed the 360 as hard as they could. There were hints of slowdown at times when panning through vast vistas, but nothing that affected gameplay. While I felt they overdid the motion blur a bit, Reach is easily the most beautiful game Bungie has made. It doesn’t have quite the visual crispness of Gears of War, but Halo’s strength has always been how easily the game’s battles can scale to impressive size without a visual hit.
It seems fitting that Halo: Reach is Bungie's last game. Not only is this the highest note that Bungie could probably leave on, it brings with it a bittersweet ending, much like the game itself. It's no secret that Reach’s story does not end well, and Bungie didn’t shy away from this. It's a dark, somber game with an excellent soundtrack fueling the mood. There are faint glimmers of hope, for example helping civilian transports escape, but your ultimate fate is always lingering in the back of your head. That said, this is easily Bungie's best campaign. Reach takes a page from Halo 3: ODST, focusing the narrative squarely on you and your band of brothers, in this case Noble Team. As Nobel Six, a Spartan III, you fight through a surprisingly robust variety of missions. The much advertised space-combat mission is just one excellent example. As you progress, you’re treated to some truly excellent cut-scenes. These were always fairly underwhelming in past Halo games, but Reach features uncharacteristically impressive moments. Tumbling down a hill in first person after your vehicle just exploded feels awesome. Voice acting is generally good, but never truly excels. It's no JRPG travesty and is sparse throughout, so it's only a very minor complaint.
Keeping with the games grittier tone, enemies are no longer cartoony or cutesy. Grunts no longer act like goofballs. Elites are now extremely formidable and visually threatening. New jackals are fast and aggressive, no longer relegating themselves to just distance fights. The Covenant is finally living up to their reputation of fearsome, ruthless alien invaders. It’s a welcome change. I won’t spoil any of the story, but the ending definitely struck a chord. Bungie could have cut their losses, explaining how Reach was glassed, leaving Noble Six’s fate up to assumption. However, they smartly went a step beyond that. This is the first game in the series that made me feel something beyond the typical male-power-fantasy. It was a refreshing change to have a somber tale for once.
The biggest misstep is the lack of ambient life on Reach. While it’s nice to see a handful of civilians or Moa birds fleeing, it doesn’t do enough to make you feel like you’re on a living, breathing planet. When games like Bioshock demonstrate how powerful a setting can be, it’s a let-down to see it executed poorly. It’s a minor complaint, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
Following the legacy of past Halo games, Reach will live or die on the quality of its competitive multiplayer. Bungie knows a thing or two about making a solid online experience, and it carries through here. Their party system is so flexible and streamlined that it embarrasses other top-tier shooters. The amount of game types is as big as ever. Battles still retain the signature Halo feel, but the ability to choose a load-out (starting weapons + armor ability) brings much needed diversity. There’s nothing terribly new here, but the addition of new weapons and armor abilities makes it fresh again. Even something as simple as running changes the feel of the game entirely. Not to mention things like armor-lock and the jetpack, which lets you rule the verticality of maps like never before. Still, if you didn’t like Halo’s brand of combat, this probably won’t change your mind.
Firefight Mode's full potential is brought out in Reach. While it was genuinely fun and addictive when debuted in ODST, it was very limited. Reach adds much-needed matchmaking, along with the ability to customize with a plethora of options to tweak. I also can't tell you how relieved I was when the match I played only lasted around 10 minutes, as opposed to the multiple-hour-endurance matches from ODST. Rounds are fast and intense, with enemy AI as ruthless as ever. Firefight scratches the co-op itch nicely, and is a welcome break from the typical Slayer matches. Bungie has made it clear that this mode deserves to be a third pillar, standing with campaign and competitive game types.
Halo 3 introduced the ability to customize your armor. Bungie has expanded the idea in Reach, and bumped up the armor variants. Instead of earning them through specific achievements, you purchase pieces with credits earned through online play. Special challenges are added every week, tasking players with specific feats (stick an enemy in battle, get 50 kills, etc) which reward bonus credits. I appreciate the dynamic challenges, as almost feels questing. I couldn’t help but feel good once I completed all of a week’s challenges. It feels like a natural progression of an online shooter. Expect to see this feature copied in other games. It’s a powerful hook to bring players back in, even for a couple days at a time.
Upon hearing that Halo: Reach was Bungie’s last game, I was scared they’d phone it in and move onto their next project. I couldn’t be more wrong. This is clearly a love-letter to all Halo fans. There isn’t a mode that hasn’t been improved or expanded in some way. And with the robust online modes, not to mention the massive new sandbox Forge-world, Halo: Reach has the legs to be an online favorite for years. Bungie may be bidding adieu to the Halo series, but they’ve crafted a new pinnacle.
- Excellent narrative
- Beautiful visuals
- Varied campaign levels
- Robust multiplayer modes and customization
- Unparalleled online experience
- More believable, gritty atmosphere
- Expanded creation tools via Forge-world.
- Environments can seem lifeless
- Minor framerate issues
- Overdone motion-blur
- Uneven voice-acting