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Halo: Reach Review

By Jeff Buckland, 9/22/2010

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It's been almost a decade since Master Chief stormed onto Microsoft's fledgling Xbox. Back then, few believed that the video game industry could support three major consoles all competing for the same gaming dollar, but games like Halo helped cement the Xbox as a product that wasn't exactly a financial success during its lifetime (the Xbox project was billions of dollars in the red until a couple years after the 360 was launched), but it at least made Xbox a household name.

Bungie, the developers of Halo, have since made four more games in the universe while Ensemble Studios put together a strategy game with even more battles. Halo: Reach is a prequel that back to when Spartans were still a big part of the war, and it details what happened on the planet Reach leading up to the Covenant wiping out the planet.

Spoiler alert: yes, Reach is lost. We have actually known that for most of ten years, as the events at the beginning of the first Halo are the result of what happens here. (Plus, there was a book.) But there's a story about a group of Spartans called Noble Team here, and you'll get to participate in some of the Halo universe's most epic fights to see just how the first Halo began.

The first things you'll notice about Reach, once you get playing, is that Bungie's engine has been pushed to its limits, all NPCs and enemies have been recreated from scratch in higher detail, and the action is generally more satisfying than in past games. Unfortunately, that does mean that the frame rate often drops well below the baseline of 30fps (oddly enough, the added detail in solo mode is the worst part; in split screen mode, detail is lowered and the frame rate drops aren't nearly as often or intense). It also means that some of your favorite enemies look and act differently, although there's a larger variety, too. From shielded Grunts to much more aggressive Jackals, all your favorite enemies are here and this time they'll keep you guessing.

The campaign details Noble Team's story in a more personal story, much like the ones in last year's ODST. It's not going to trounce the storytelling of veteran action-RPG studios like BioWare or Bethesda who both have specialized in their own unique brands of adding rich plots to action games, but it's still good, and it's really damn good for the Halo universe (and for the stereotype of the Halo-playing, attention deficit fratboy who skips all of the cutscenes and calls people "bro" constantly).

Forge mode is back, and it's now called Forge World. The biggest thing is that you can build structures on any given map and they'll stay stuck together, so we'll see even more creativity from the Forge community. While we're still not at the level of map creation like we've seen in some PC games (or in something like LittleBigPlanet), it's the best map editing in a straight-up console action game yet.

Then there's Firefight. You can set a large range of options on now, including ways to make both the game much harder and much easier (set yourself up to do triple damage and get infinite lives, then turn on a bunch of skulls and you'll see what I mean), and even fine tune the types of enemies you'll see on a map. You can have many hours of fun just in Firefight; the only thing I think that's really missing from this mode is a set of vehicles to play with, but the Jetpack armor ability helps.

Speaking of armor upgrades: this is the big new feature that will let you pick an ability to put on your left bumper. There's the aforementioned jetpack, but you can also lock up your armor to make yourself temporarily invincible (but you also can't move or do anything) to withstand a shot from a Wraith tank or a ram from a vehicle, use a pretty basic sprint, throw down a spherical shield to absorb damage, or create a classic Holoduke-style copy of yourself that runs out and fools opponents. The Halo series has played with these kinds of one-use items before, but this is by far the best implementation yet.

You won't be able to avoid or fool the Convent for very long with armor abilities, though. Halo has always had some of the best AI in the game industry, and the way your enemies will used mixed tactics to outsmart and outflank you is spot-on. When playing on Legendary difficulty, you'll find yourself surprised at their ability to sneak up on you and even perform feints and tricks. If you repeat the same fight over and over, the end result is either the Covenant dead or you dead, but rarely does the same stuff happen to get to one of those results. Considering that in most cover-based action games now we praise the AI for simply being able to do basic things like throwing grenades or ducking behind cover when you're shooting, Bungie comes out and reminds us what stellar AI in a shooter really is like.

You'll get the chance to earn credits with almost everything you do in single player, cooperative, and online modes, and you can use these credits to customize your Spartan in a bunch of unique ways. It's all cosmetic, though, so there are no combat advantages, but you can really do a lot to make some very unique soldiers out on the battlefield. None of it really amounts to much for the game itself, but for those who are buying Reach with the intent of playing online for weeks or months, it helps to still have that unique way to improve your character - even if it's just the look or sound that's changing.

One thing that's important to point out is that the Halo series is probably still one of the best on consoles for cooperative FPS play. Every single mode allows for players to do split-screen play on the same console (albeit with those vertical bars on the sides of the screen), and everything works over Xbox Live and System Link, too. Halo is a pretty fun game when played alone, but frankly, there's just no substitute for playing cooperatively with a buddy. This is where the game really shines, and anyone who finds this series boring without having done a co-op session definitely needs to play it that way to really make it stand out.

Bungie's last Halo game is most definitely its best yet, with fantastic AI, tons of options for Firefight mode, a much-improved Forge mode, and a fun kind of unpredictability in its combat that you just don't get in many of today's corridor shooters. The lack of Master Chief (even as a cameo in the campaign) winds up being a disappointment and even Bungie's redesign of the Covenant enemies can't hide the fact that we've been fighting these same old adversaries for years, but that's no reason to leave this game behind if you've enjoyed nearly anything about Halo in the past. While the torch has been passed to fledgling studio 343 Productions for future Halo content and games, Bungie's final effort in this universe still stands as a fantastic final chapter to a gaming dynasty that's lasted most of a decade.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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