Halo is one of the most beloved video-game franchises of this generation. The first game in the series was released almost 10 years ago. Two and a half games, millions of dollars in merchandise, comics, books and music later, Halo is just as much of a household name to college students as Star Wars was to youth in the 1970s.
Halo Reach is game developer Bungie’s (but not Microsoft’s) last foray into the Halo universe.
When you hear the word “prequel,” images of Star Wars, Jar Jar Binks and bad writing come to mind. But unlike the poor quality of the Star Wars prequels, Halo: Reach is unequivocally the best game Bungie has released to date.
Set on the human world of Reach, you play as Noble 6, a member of an elite Spartan Special Forces team. Set several weeks before the original Halo game, Noble team is dispatched to investigate the mysterious outage of a communications relay.
Once Noble team discovers that The Covenant is establishing a beachhead for an invasion. The Covenant is a collection of extra-solar species bent on destroying humanity for reasons that are hinted at and revealed throughout the Halo games, comics and books. It’s only when the Covenant have conquered a world that they bombard its surface until all land masses are molten glass. Noble team’s primary objective through the game is to prevent the Covenant from gaining a foot hold on the planet and protecting secret military installations.
The story in Halo: Reach revolves around survival and self-sacrifice, alternating between epic and somber moments with ease. The cut scenes effectively tell the story, with character models that incorporate full-body motion-capture and excellent voice overs from a well-established cast.
Everything that was great about the original Halo is present in Reach. Killing hordes of alien scum, cool weapons, great music and environmental design are outstanding and look well polished and put together. The vehicular segments are still the most fun and original aspects, showing off Bungie’s impeccable sense of spatial awareness and cinematic design.
The most notable difference in Halo: Reach that sets it apart from other games in the series is the vast improvement on character facial modeling and character lip-syncing. Bungie has done away with its previous character models for both the humans and Covenant, making each much more detailed and realistic. The human characters are believable enough that they look and move like they have been at war for the past 25 years, and the same goes for the Covenant, which are distinctly more alien and scary than in the last few games.
Everything in Halo: Reach, from the weapons to the enemy character models, was rebuilt from the ground up, pushing the Xbox 360 to its limits. In a blog post on Bungie’s website, 3D art lead Scott Shepherd was interviewed by the “community guy” Brian Jarrard (aka Sketch) about the process of re-envisioning the Halo universe for Reach.
“To save time in production the original plan for the team was to carry over the existing assets from Halo 3 and add a few new polygons here and there and rework some textures to bring them up to the Reach bar. That didn’t last long,” Scott explains, “The more we started looking into this, the more we found that realistically we could rebuild each asset from scratch with a huge increase in quality without significantly investing more time. In some cases we were able to quadruple the budgets of the original Halo 3 assets, really creating an aesthetic that fits perfectly in the Halo Universe but is 100% unique to Reach and clearly demonstrates what Bungie is capable of.”
Composer and sound design lead, Martin O’Donnell returns in Halo: Reach with a musical score that rivals the likes of John Williams and James Horner. It is somber, gloomy and visceral in all the right places, with distinctive motifs and melodies presented in the original Halo woven in masterfully. His sound design work is impeccable as always; human weapons each have their own individual cadences, lasers have a distinct alien feel and vehicles are characters in themselves.
The other thing worth mentioning is the enemy AI in Halo: Reach is smart and surpasses its predecessors by leaps and bounds. The enemy on harder difficulties provides a worthy challenge to the player. Foes will duck, take cover, dodge and climb objects fluidly, easily evading your attacks. Often times if you get too close to some of the more advanced units in the game, they will discard one weapon for one that works better at closer range.
More often than once in time spent playing Halo: Reach, the controller will be thrown down out of sheer frustration and annoyance. This is a good thing because the last few years, games have been getting decidedly easier as developers attempt to get the most people playing them. They lower the learning curve, thus making the game easier to play for beginners and the evolving, casual-gamer markets. Bungie has always done the opposite of this, making the disparity between the levels of difficulty clear to understand and tailoring each setting differently in terms of weapon displacement, ammo location, enemy intelligence levels and how many units spawn at a given point.
Now for all the good that is achieved in Halo: Reach’s campaign, there are some less-than-stellar aspects that take away from the game.
The one large gripe among fans is that Halo: Reach is short. Playing on normal difficulty, you can complete the game in an estimated eight hours. This can be stretched out to at least 10 or 12 hours on the harder difficulties. Fortunately, the multiplayer and firefight modes more than make up for the lack of a seriously meaty campaign and story.
Your fellow Spartans are dumb in comparison to the difficulty and challenge the enemy AI provides, your allies on Noble Team are poor shots most of the time and are bad drivers. Now admittedly if they were too smart, there would be nothing for the player to do. This could have been easily solved if Bungie had put in a rudimentary squad command function into the game with commands such as “Attack this,” “Defend me” and “Go here.”
However, it’s just not limited to the Spartans. The Marines in this game are somewhat less aware of what they are doing than they were in Halo 3, and their dialogue is much more toned down and restrained than in previous installments of the Halo franchise.
When it comes to the AI’s driving ability, it has steadily increased from its inception in Halo 2, when friendlies could drive you around in a general preset direction while you shoot. In its current incarnation, this ability is still not as smooth or as fluid as it should be and will eventually end up getting you killed. The only thing that makes this flaw redeemable is there are no missions where you are forced to ride shotgun.
Aside from the campaign, Bungie’s award-winning multiplayer has been vastly improved. Matchmaking has been refined so only the best connections are made and players with similar Internet conditions and play styles are paired up.
Also, maps are much smoother and more balanced than in previous Halo games. This is attributable to the success of the massive beta testing that was done when Halo: ODST was released. Another big improvement that fans will notice, is the melee attack and grenade power issues have been resolved and appropriately balanced.
But these improvements to the multiplayer don’t come without sacrifices. Of the big changes to affect the multiplayer is the ability to duel-wield weapons has been taken out, grenades have been reduced to only two types and various weapons have been removed, replaced or tweaked for balance issues. But overall, the revamped multiplayer mode is fun and more than challenging enough to keep your attention until the next triple-A title is released on the Xbox.
With Halo: Reach being the final game before Bungie moves on to bigger and better things with Activision, it is a worthy end to a decade of craftsmanship and design. Aside from several small issues, Halo: Reach is well made and easily enjoyable.
It gets a 4.5 out of 5