Halo: Reach is exactly the kind of game that Bungie has gotten great at building over the last two generations of console hardware. It's a Halo game through and through, with the same style and pacing that you've come to expect, but with a new cast of characters that are worth paying attention to and a multiplayer mode that has more variety than it's ever had before. It's not going to change your mind about Halo, but this special delivery for fans of the franchise is a great send-off as Bungie ends its involvement with the franchise to go work on something new.
Halo: Reach is a prequel to the first game in the series, providing some perspective on events that take place just before the opening of Halo: Combat Evolved. It also provides some perspective that isn't found in the book upon which these events are based, Halo: The Fall of Reach. So while you'll probably already know that things are about to go very, very bad on the planet called Reach, you don't know the specifics about how the attack went down. The story focuses more on a group of six Spartans called Noble Team, who encounters Covenant forces on the planet, immediately sending the entire world into chaos. You'll play as a Spartan referred to as Noble Six throughout the game. Six's shadowy past paints him as something of a lone wolf bad-ass in the Master Chief mold, but Six is new to the team, so you'll be paired up with and taking orders from the rest of your unit as you work your way from one conflict to the next. Though the constant conflict doesn't leave much time for the other five members of Noble Team to get personal, most of the characters manage to be interesting, which makes the story work well enough to keep it engaging.
If you've played just about any of the previous Halo shooters, you won't be too surprised by what you find in Reach. The pacing, structure, and most of the equipment have popped up in the previous games. Bungie didn't go "reinvent the Assault Rifle" or anything silly like that. And unlike its past game, Halo 3: ODST, Reach returns to a more conventional format, moving you directly from level to level without any sort of hub world. Though you'll often be teamed up with one or more of the other Spartans from your team, the gameplay doesn't really change as a result. They behave just like any other AI in the game, shooting when appropriate and automatically teleporting up to you at checkpoints if you decide to leave them behind. It might have been nice--and would have driven home the unique nature of Noble Team--if those guys were integrated more tightly into the action. The story does take a couple of twists, though, setting up some interesting vehicle sequences and some bits that are slightly more open-ended than Halo games have been, traditionally speaking.
Depending on which difficulty setting you choose--Bungie is again recommending that experienced players start on the second-highest difficulty setting, Heroic--and your own personal skill, Halo: Reach's solo campaign will probably land somewhere between seven and 12 hours. Though I've certainly appreciated the last couple of shooters in the series, by the end of Reach's campaign I found myself rushing past some encounters, hoping to skate to the next checkpoint without doing as much fighting. The combat is very similar to previous Halo games, and I feel like the last level or two drag a bit when compared to the rest of the game. It's too bad, too, because that's when the story starts to become familiar, as it begins to tie into things you'll probably remember from previous Halo games.
Rushing past those encounters is enabled by the game's new armor abilities. These are slotted and swapped out just like a weapon, though you can hit the left bumper to activate your currently equipped ability. The default ability is a sprint, which is great, especially if you're the sort of person that wishes that Halo had a slightly faster pace. You can't run forever, though. All of the abilities have a meter that drains when activated and takes a bit of time to recharge. In the campaign, you'll occasionally find other armor abilities out in the field, allowing you to swap out the sprint for a jetpack, a cloaking device, a couple of different shield options, and so on. These armor abilities also factor into the game's multiplayer.
OK, multiplayer. It's kind of a big deal in the Halo universe, right? In Reach, the options and abilities have grown quite a bit. Campaign co-op is still there for up to four players and can be played with or without scoring. It's also supported by the game's matchmaking features, allowing you to play through the campaign with strangers. For those of you without a bunch of Halo-loving friends who want to get a team together, this is a terrific addition. Matchmaking has also come to Firefight, the wave-based survival mode introduced in ODST. That's a great enhancement, too, but it's not the only thing going on with Firefight.
The default mode has changed a bit to make it more inviting overall, but it's what you can do with the addition of custom variants that makes Firefight so much more interesting. Much like Halo 3's multiplayer, you can tweak a ton of different things to make modes that feel very different from the default. If you'd like, you can enable generators that must be protected from the incoming Covenant forces. You can set which types of enemies come at you in every wave, or tweak your starting health, or alter damage modifiers on weapons and health... essentially, you can make it completely impossible, mind-numbingly easy, or just about anything in-between. Incidentally, making it incredibly easy is handy if you're the sort of person who wants to get some of Halo: Reach's Firefight achievements without breaking a sweat. The Firefight maps in Reach also feel more interesting than most of the arenas and other maps found in ODST.
The rest of Reach's multiplayer package builds on that game variant creation stuff that Halo 3 introduced, which is made deeper by the addition of new modes and options. Now, with the inclusion of armor abilities, you select a loadout before spawning. Loadouts are determined by gametype, and you can build (or restrict) custom loadouts when creating a game variant. So if you want everyone to have jet-packs and hammers, you can totally do that. The game also codifies the race mode that users created out of the VIP gametype back in Halo 3 and adds a new multi-tiered match called Invasion, where Spartans and Elites go at it in an objective-based match that puts one team on offense and the other on defense. Matchmaking lets users vote on the next map, rather than just vetoing whatever the current choice is, and the whole thing feels smoother than it's been in the past, whether you're looking to group up with friends or find strange corpses to duck over. Regardless of how you feel about the way Halo games play online or the community of foul-mouthed hooligans it stereotypically draws (though a new "psych profile" feature attempts to match you up with "polite" players, if that's your thing), the feature-set and options when configuring and getting into a game are completely unmatched in the world of console shooters.
Visually, the game looks sharper and has better texture clarity than its predecessors, though the frame rate can get a little unstable, particularly during the game's real-time cutscenes. It's nice that those cutscenes are being rendered on the fly, though, since you're constantly earning credits that can be used to buy various armor add-ons. They're totally cosmetic, but it's neat to be able to pick up new helmets, shoulder pads, chest plates, and so on as you play, and this helps you make your Noble Six a little more personal. You can also purchase additional voices to be used in Firefight mode, and these include the cast of Reach as well as some throwbacks from previous Halo games.
Most of those voices are really good, and Noble Team is especially full of quality voice actors, though they don't necessarily speak all that often in the grand scheme of things. The music, as you might expect, flips some of the common Halo themes in bits and pieces, but it's mostly an all-new soundtrack that fits right in with the look and feel of the action.
When taken with the appropriate context--namely, that the game's original developer is saying goodbye to the series and passing it off to a new team--Halo: Reach feels like a wholly appropriate stopping point for the series, filling out some more of the relevant fiction that surrounds the core trilogy while building the multiplayer out in such a way that Halo fans will have something to play until whatever's next is ready for release. While I do feel that the formula has worn thin in a few spots, Reach feels like a love letter from the developer to its fans. If you're one of those fans, you should have this game.