Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review: Halo: Reach

Platform: Xbox 360

Developer: Bungie

Publisher: Microsoft

# of Players: 1-16

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Official Site

Score: A

If you even thought Bungie was going to make their final Halo title for Microsoft some sort of rushed to market affair with a big "seeya, suckers!" plastered into the end credits, you'd be dead wrong. Halo: Reach closes up shop more than nicely enough to be an instant classic no fan of the franchise should miss. From the solid campaign mode to the ridiculous amount of customization and user-creation options that guarantee the game's place among the most played Xbox 360 games, there's nothing that should stop you from owning (and keeping) this one in your collection. Granted, if you're a straight-up Halo hater for some reason, the game won't do much to sway your opinion. On the other hand, it's impossible not to recognize how solid Reach is as a total package.

As a prequel to the original Xbox game, Reach's storyline focuses on the rather noble attempts of the aptly named Noble Squad to stop The Covenant from overrunning the planet they just so happen to be stationed at. If you're well-versed in the Halo universe, you know how this particular story ends, but even so, Bungie does a darn good job of keeping things fresh and you'll be pulled in by how well much of the story flows along with the action. Reach is a massive, gorgeously rendered world home to farmers and other humble citizens in quite a few locations so you'll be covering quite a bit of territory during the campaign. Things start of relatively quietly with a simple recon mission, but as the campaign goes on, it escalates to all out war. Given that this is a prequel to the whole Halo saga, you can sort of figure out where the game will end, but it's the ride you'll take that's the key here. As noted, Bungie's storytelling gives the game many emotionally charged moments, chunks of humor and some great (and excellently voiced) dialog.

Gameplay is... well, it's pure Halo with some cool twists to the familiar formula. Thanks to input from the ridiculously large Halo community and their own talents at tinkering with their baby, Reach is a nearly flawless game fans will not be able to get enough of whether in campaign, co-op or (most definitely) multiplayer. Yes, there are some advances to the weapons that would make more sense if the game took place after Halo 2 or 3, but only a true nit-picker would bash the game for making some weapons better than a previous installment. Besides, once you blow through the game once and hit the harder difficulties, you'll need every advantage you can get against the hordes of Covenant that want you dead. While I'm not particularly fond of this sort of "re-playability" in shooters (particularly in a game where a huge chunk of players will blast through the story as quickly as possible or spend more time online before they even touch the campaign), it's something that's been around since the beginnings of the FPS genre and isn't going to go away soon.

As far as the campaign length goes, that's really up to your skills, how long you play per session and how much you want to invest yourself in the plot. I personally love sitting through cut scenes and letting things play out in any game because I want to see how well a developer tells a particular tale. Even if you think you know how the game will end, it's well worth enjoying the world and characters while they're on your TV. Merely blowing through the story and not caring because you're more concerned about running around and shooting your buddies up online just means you're ignoring half of the game. It amazes me that some folks demand supremely long games or worse, think eight, ten or twelve hours is "too short" for something that obviously took a hell of a lot of time to create. In Reach, you can not only see where the time and money went in the campaign and multiplayer, you'll actually appreciate the ten plus years Bungie has spent working on Halo from its beginnings (when it wasn't going to be a FPS).

The presentation here is stellar in every area. Visuals, sound, voice acting and music all click, making this one of the best produced games of 2010. Granted, in a way, it's still "just" a Halo game, but that's more a ding at how jaded gamers this console generation have become rather than a knock at Bungie's talents. I have the feeling that for all the solid work on display here, Reach might be ignored as a Game of the Year candidate on those sites that give out such awards. There's an 800-pound gorilla named Call of Duty: Black Ops that might be a front runner for some FPS fans based on the chunk of game I saw. Of course, the COD series has its haters as well... but I refuse to get into that silliness (at least not in this review). Anyway, you certainly won't hear anyone complaining much about the graphics or sound design in Reach, as they're as good as it gets in my book.

As for the non-campaign stuff, it's phenomenal... but again, what else would you expect? The excellent Forge editing mode is back and better than ever, allowing for an even more insane amount of user creation and flexibility. Even I'm more into playing games as they are, something like Forge absolutely makes me want to play around for ages with everything to the point that I'll ignore multiplayer while I'm dinking around with game objects and ridiculous physics. All you do can be saved and shared with others and even if you never touch Forge, there's no doubt going to be a whopping amount of content available online to download and play with if you care to see what others have crafted. If you're still rocking that 20GB HDD, consider an upgrade, as between the game modes, movie saves and other functions, you'll be using up that much space within the first week or so of play.

Multiplayer is of course, where it's at for many and again, the game doesn't disappoint. Yes, Xbox Live is still filled with all sorts of rude, amazingly racist and flat out low-lifes no human being needs to interact with (how the hell do they get and pay for Live Accounts?). But with people you know or like-minded players, there's a load of endless fun to be had. I won't go over every single game mode, the new stuff and so forth and so on, as I spend less time playing games online than most of you out there. Suffice to say, Bungie knows and loves its massive community and every aspect of the multiplayer modes show this. In a way, they've pioneered a lot of what FPS gamers expect from a modern shooter (a good and bad thing, depending on who you ask) and seeing the developer close out their work on the franchise in such high order makes me respect them all the more.

In a big way, it's Microsoft that has a bit of a problem as far as the future of Halo goes. With six games in the franchise to date (including the underrated Halo Wars) and the creators now departed for new horizons, any game with the Halo name has a lot to live up to. Bungie's ending their run on a prequel (and previously, a side story) means that the series can go in either direction and work, provided the next game doesn't simply template the Halo formula and cater strictly to what the fan base wants right out of the game. Some risk-taking (other than the new dev team) is in order here - the next Halo game needs something truly epic to get fans that miss Bungie weaned off their work and onto the new team's while managing to draw in new players as well.

As for just when that new Halo game launches.. well, that's what next year's E3 is for, isn't it? I'm sure we'll ll be surprised at what's been cooking post-Bungie and there's no doubt that Microsoft will have something to counter what's looking like a huge year for the PS3. No matter what's coming, it's sure to be debated, dissected and bought by the millions of hardcore Halo fans that expect their game to be the best of its kind, no matter what anyone else says. For a swan song, Bungie goes out on top of its game, leaving the fat lady buried under a few hundred tons of rubble. Halo Reach is brilliant (like it or not) - stop reading this and go get a copy already.

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