Sunday, 26 September 2010

Review: Halo: Reach

Each instalment of the Halo series has both divided and polarised the hearts and minds of gamers across the globe. It’s had many ups and downs, minor miss-steps, and incredible triumphs, but most of all, it defined a generation of console first person shooters, for better or worse, with the original Halo perhaps being the most highly regarded. So with that in mind, Halo Reach seems like a fitting end to the series by going right back to the very beginning, a conclusion that is the catalyst for all that has gone by, and all that is yet to come to past, even if it can never live up to the expectation of being called the greatest Halo ever.

Halo Reach tells the story of mankind’s first large scale conflict with the Covanent on planet Reach; the legendary training ground for the elite Spartan soliders and the iconic Master Chief himself. For those who haven’t read the books, it’s a battle which turns into a massacre, a disaster zone in which mass genocide, chaos and utter obliteration ensues. The tale of Reach is supposed to be a sombre, desperate one, connecting with the series more naturalistic, human side, whilst also setting the stage for that memorable first encounter on the original Halo ring that brought the series into the limelight.

But despite going back to the series beginnings it never feels like a homage title to the first game. Instead it crafts out its own unique feel and iconic legacy that ensures that it stands out from past instalments, whilst also bringing something new, and somewhat fresh to the table. Well, just about.

In-keeping with the game’s story and planetary settings, Halo: Reach feels far more organic than its predecessors. Both the music and the art design reflect an earthy tone underpinning the whole experience, whilst staying true to the series trademark, minimalist, almost contemporary, sci-fi roots. However the game also never quite achieves its heartfelt intentions, with both the storyline and characterisation being paper thin, and the cut-scenes simply doing very little to flesh out the apparent horrors of war being faced by the cast and planet Reach.

Touching down on the planet’s surface for the first time, shortly before engaging in your first close quarter’s encounter, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t Halo: CE. In fact Reach is actually quite different from past Halo games (being more like ODST than 2 or 3), cleverly integrating nearly a decades worth of upgrades, gameplay tweaks, and AI developments into its campaign. The familiarity of the series is there, and the overall feel rests somewhere between that of Halo 3 and ODST, but with the finer balance and finesse associated with the original game. Dual Welding is out, with the heavy firing assault rife, and the impacting pistol with the zoom sight going back in.

Throughout Reach you’ll be playing as Noble 6; a nameless, faceless new addition to the Noble Team of Spartan soldiers sent in to defined Reach against the growing alien invasion. You are in effect a clean slate, something in which to blueprint your own personality onto. At first this makes your part in the whole conflict feel a little soulless, but at the same time it is exactly the reason why Bungie decided to go with a faceless, nameless hero like Masterchief (it’s simply a military rank) in the first place. It’s your fellow comrades, which provide the game’s light semblance of humanity and character. And by that, I mean human character, and not that of the environment and enemies.

Unlike ODST, the game never gets bogged down with personal stories. Here, your only concern is Reach, and defending it from a sneaky alien invasion. Sure, each member of your squad has his or hers own distinct personality, but they never take centre stage. Although at times the game takes itself far too seriously. That said it is a vastly superior take on the ideas first explored in ODST, despite the fact that they are not explored quite enough given the underpinning subject matter. Characters that you feel like you are getting to know are killed-off almost as soon as they begin to stand out, and the whole start-to-finish story of planetary annihilation is paced far to quickly for any meaningful effect.

But then again this is Halo, and with the exception of the convoluted story behind Halo 2, the series has never been one to mince words, instead simply providing the basis for more thirty-second action, with a few set-pieces in between.

Onto the actual gameplay, and Reach presents the player with the classic Assault Rife and Pistol combo. A familiar sight for anyone who’s been with the series since the begging, and a welcome return to what many fans were calling their favourite weapons combination.

However, these aren’t exactly as you remember. Anyone looking to lay waste to an Elite by emptying a whole clip from their assault rife, before smacking them in the face using the but end of the thing, be warned. The powered up Spartan favourite has been balanced out accordingly, with a stock of Covenant weapons providing much-needed grunt on occasions where the human weapons fail. Plus, those nasty Elite’s are even nastier, tougher and more relentless than ever. But it’s not just them. Hunters are equally difficult, if not more so to eradicate, so you’ll be wanting to keep some sort of Covantent weaponry handy in order to take down their shields before going in for the kill.

Saying that, both signature weapons from the first game still feel rather aggressive, and several well-aimed, well-timed, blasts in combination with a melee attack will still reward those with a quick and gracious kill. The DMR – Reach’s replacement for the battle rife – is easily one of the best, providing ample damage, and a nice short-range zoom facility. If not, then sniper rifles and grenades put up a formidable fight against the alien’s powerful oversheilds, as does your armour abilities, protecting you when all else fails, which when used correctly evens things out a little.

Armour abilities now stay with you throughout the campaign, like with normal weapons, and can be swapped out at certain points in the game. Unlike before, they are all multiple use, relying on a small gauge found to the bottom left of the screen. It only takes a few seconds to fill back up after use. Some abilities, like the jetpack, and the sprint can be used in smaller increments giving you more control over how you want to use them. They’re inclusion in Reach seems far more deliberate, largely more useful than in Halo 3, and represent another balanced improvement on the Spartan side of the arsenal.

On the other hand, some of the Covenant weapons feel a little bit more useless than before. The needler in particular has seen a subtle downgrading in power, no longer being the series alien alternative to the pistol – its still one of the best though, still fully functional in the right hands. Whilst new additions like the concussion rifle and focus rifle are largely pointless, and act as a poor alternative to their human developed counterparts, if of course they actually have one. Case in point, the somewhat disappointing needle rife, comparatively less effective than the standard sniper rifle.

However, it’s not all bad. The plasma pistol becomes a deadly weapon for taking down Brute’s shields, and the quick firing, but reasonably powerful plasma repeater can break through an Elite’s armour in just a few shots - more so than either the Spartan pistol or assault rife. These provide a far greater balance between power and firing speed, being thoroughly effective weapons for dealing with most, but not all of the Covenant threat. Also, when used in combination with the less unusual human arsenal a few key weapons really come into their own, clearly affirming the human/covanent strategy that seems built for the game.

And strategy, albeit at a break-neck, split second pace is exactly what you’ll need, seeing as Bungie have laid down the gauntlet with some initially impressive enemy AI. Before, particularly in Halo 3 and ODST, it always seemed that every enemy (minus the grunts of course) was permanently on full testosterone, aggression duty. But not anymore.

The AI is still rather aggressive, although it now shifts depending directly on how you approach the situation, and how the odds sway during battle. It’s nothing revolutionary, with the whole thing basically coming down to: retreat, flank, attack, reposition, and then repeat again. But it’s the way it is done that commands your attention. AI patterns are always varied, usually interesting, and always make for a thoroughly entertaining, if not occasionally frustrating shootout experience.

Of course, if you want to pick holes, then you could say that most of the game’s seemingly intelligent enemies are used as a smokescreen for some basic AI routines, which are pretty easily exploited. The Elite’s in particular, can be made to do what you want by firing off shots on either side, and by positioning yourself in a way that constantly makes them want to attack you directly.

Using this kind of gameplay approach evens out some of your limitations. In Reach your overshield takes a lot longer to recharge than in Halo 3 or ODST, and while it is down you are even more vulnerable to taking damage than before. A single blast from a Grunt’s plasma pistol can instantly take down your shield if impacting head-on, and a few smaller, quick blasts can sap out your health just as fast. Rushing in is now no longer an option. Instead you now have to play it safe: a cat and mouse game of strafing, backing away, before rushing in for a briefly surprising counter-attack.

The gameplay then, feels different than before, almost more like an extension of the system found in ODST than in Halo 2 or 3, and very different to the one found in the original. Despite this Halo Reach feels very much like the game Halo 2 should have been, particularly when it comes to its visual style, and the more grounded, earthly nature of the environments so beautifully depicted throughout. Reach feels like earth, and one stage later on in the game looks like a direct homage to the opening level in the unfinished, canned original build of Halo 2. A nice nod to the fans there.

Somewhat disappointing is the size and scope of some of the battles, or rather the lack of. Bungie promised us ones that were meant to be huge. Epic, in fact, perfectly setting the tone for the eventual end of Reach. However, what we have been given is largely the same size battles as in Halo 3, maybe bolstered with a few more Grunts and one or two Elites. Most of the Epic scale stuff is contained within the cut-scenes, and the on-rails portions of the game, giving you only a brief look at the wider picture of the conflict potentially on offer here.

In the end the Campaign mode of Halo: Reach sticks to exactly what the series is known for: a close 30 seconds of intense shooting fun, never deviating from that blueprint, or attempting to add anything else to the proceedings. Thankfully, the scenery in the game is beautiful, with stunning mountain ranges, large wide-open vistas, and stark industrial complexes, complemented with a lavishly implemented graphical upgrade. You can read about it in detail here, and here in our tech analysis if you really want to know the details, but suffice to say that Reach finals comes out back on top with regards to its once high-end visual status.

Despite a few issues, and some ups and downs, the campaign in Reach is perhaps the most iconic that the series has seen since the original Halo. Pretty much every stage through the game was as memorable and as pleasing to see as the last. Perhaps all except the final few stages, in which things get very dark, and very gritty. The campaign is also a lot more consistent throughout. Whereas the first half of Halo: CE was clearly the best part of the game, Reach manages to keep things moving forward for longer, even if what’s here does feel a little tired, like you’ve been treading old ground over for the umpteenth time. And in essence you have, since this is yet another Halo title.

Outside of the Campaign Mode Halo Reach’s Multiplayer is slightly less fresh, and more overly familiar. Its no less good because of that though, and basically culminates in bringing together all the upgrades and tweaks that we’ve seen over the years in one finely refined package.

I’m sure some people will complain about the various weapon changes that have taken place (the slight downgrading of the pistol for example), they always do. Although weapon balance in itself is as good as it has ever been, and the new additions – some initially bizarre and in effective, others particularly outrageous – allow for plenty of variety and intricate mastery to take place.

It is the modes and maps however, that really defines just how good the game’s multiplayer will be. And in this respect Reach perhaps is as good, but not blindingly better than past titles, although not without the feeling that a few more classic stages wouldn’t go a miss, and that there really should be more outdoors, blue skies content for your killing needs. Then again, with Bungie promising further support by the way of downloadable content, it’s not a terribly large issue. Stuff like Bloodgultch has seen another return which is nice, although not many people seem to be picking it.

Making their way back for this latest, and last instalment in the series, from Halo 3 and ODST, we have both Forge World, and Firefight. Both have seen a range of tweaks and upgrades, mainly in allowing for more customisation and control over what the player can do.

Firefight in particular has seen some interesting inclusions in the way of customisable features called Files. Files can be created by both players and the developer, and basically consist of fixed, custom match set-ups. Things like enemy types, weapons, and more can all be set, mixing things up from the usual match options via the use of the series infamous Skulls. Player created files can be uploaded onto Xbox Live, and then Downloaded by other players to try out. Amongst these is one made by the developers themselves, allowing players to easily gain all the available achievements in this mode. Nice!

Forge World allows you to move around large parts of the scenery in real-time with other players, giving the option for more finite customisation of various game types whilst making traditional maps almost unrecognisable. It’s here that all new takes on classic game types can be made, and bizarre twists on initially balanced maps can be turned upside down for all to see. Far more impressive is the fact that you can work with other players in crafting the stage, thus bringing a real community feel throughout the whole process.

Classic modes like Team Slayer and King Of The Hill make their successful return, as does Capture The Flag and plain old Slayer, much to the delight of many fans, and especially myself with the inclusion of classic slayer, although its inclusion is somewhat overshadowed by endless twists on the formula. Many traditional modes have been beefed up with new twists, and a wider range of variety when in matchmaking. Sometimes it can be quite hard to just play one single style of game type over short’ish sessions, with a distinct lack of control over what you can and cannot play.

Quite why I cannot set-up a matchmaking option where I just choose one game type with no variations is, in this day and age, rather disappointing, and a somewhat major oversight to an otherwise solid matchmaking system. However, having a system like this encourages players to try out other modes, which is obviously a good thing, and prevents the online community from feeling stale from simply playing similar games.

New modes like Invasion sets up two teams against each other, one playing as the Spartans and the other as Covenant Elite’s, with each side trying to capture the other ones turf in a series of simple objectives. Whilst Stockpile sees players accumulate skulls upon each kill with their aim to deliver them to the drop off point before getting killed themselves. Invasion adds a touch of teamwork and strategy to the proceedings, while Stockpile often descends into madness, arguably being almost as fun as Team Slayer on many occasions.

In the end Halo: Reach’s multiplayer is once again the backbone of the game, not only propping up the single-player Campaign mode, but also being the needle-injection of addictiveness the series is known for. The vast range of game types and different takes on these is impressive, and the inclusion of Firefight matchmaking is a big plus. Although, the lack of being able to either, start matchmaking custom games, or simply one type of selected game (like Classic Slayer) is pretty disappointing. You can of course do this via individual player invites, but it would have been nice to be able to do this with all players as well.

Perhaps the only other issue is that the whole thing feels a little too familiar and samey overall. Halo 2 brought the series multi-player into the limelight, and it could be argued that Halo 3 ODST vastly elevated it, while Reach tries to perfect it, albeit with strong but also mixed results. Multiplayer, like with the single player Campaign can never be everything to everyone, although Reach does provide the best overall social slaughterfest the series has seen to date, regardless of whether or not the maps you so love are or aren’t included.

On the flipside Bungie have promised to update the game periodically, including tweaks and changes to modes and matchmaking options, and like always, with a string of new maps, making this a progressive experience rather than a final one.

When it comes down to the crunch, Halo Reach is still quite possibly the best game in the series, although it doesn’t always feel that way. It may not be quite as iconic as the first, and the single player campaign isn’t quite as expertly structured, but in terms of the whole package it is pretty much as good as you were ever going to get.

Bungie have brought the series back full circle, without reinventing the wheel, or even delivering some of the changes expected from a series that has been going for so long. It does however, provide another enjoyable slice of first-person shooting action, which although feels a little too samey, holds up far better up against Halo: CE than any of its past sequels has ever done, especially with regards to the Campaign. That said, I think that the series has finally run its course, and that Reach could be described as a reasonably good, often excellent, fitting finale to the series as a whole.

The real question though, is whether or not it was really worth waiting nearly a decade for. And sadly, that answer is obviously a decidedly firm no. Instead, I’d perhaps describe Halo: Reach as the game that Halo 2 should have been, but nearly ten years too late, with loads of tweaks and upgrades, a far better campaign, and more than a touch of unwanted over-familiarity.


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