Gamers everywhere have been counting down the days until they can finally sink their teeth into Bungie's last Halo game, Halo: Reach, but can it live up to the crazy amount of hype it's gathered since it was first announced? No, of course not. But that doesn't mean that it's not a great game and a must-own for every Xbox 360 gamer.
In Reach, you fall into the role of Noble 6, a character who you may customize right from the beginning. You decide Noble 6's gender, armor colors and symbol, and after you've decked out the Spartan in the latest duds, you take control of the character. Let me rephrase that, YOU are Noble 6. Bungie has made the main character of Halo: Reach, you, the player, and damn it feels good. Luckily, Bungie has learned from their previous mistakes in ODST, so you'll be happy to know that Noble 6 isn't a mute like 'The Rookie'.
The actual story of Halo: Reach is told in a much darker fashion than Halo 3 and you feel much more intimate with all of the Spartans on Noble Team then you have in any of the previous Halo titles. I don't want to spoil too much about the game's story so I'll just summarize a few early parts. Noble 6 shows up to fill in for an old member of Noble Team who was offed. Apparently, Noble 6 has quite the record and has been known to make entire militia groups disappear. Noble 6 is not franchise poster boy Master Chief in a very clever disguise, so stop thinking that right now.
Noble Team goes to investigate a UNSC beacon and what they believe to be Rebel resistance, and *spoiler alert* they quickly learn that the Covenant have landed on Reach. There are a few points throughout the campaign that are a little weak from a storytelling perspective, but overall the campaign will suck you in to the point that you, arguably for the first time in a Halo game, may even start to legitimately care about the characters. Some familiar faces and voices will show up throughout the campaign and the Chief, who doesn't make an epic appearance in the story, can be unlocked as a voice for Firefight.
The campaign is engaging and there are a couple of moments where you will feel like a total badass. Throughout different cutscenes you'll assume either a first-person view, the view from the nearest security camera, or a view that feels like a camera man following the Noble Team. All of these different combinations provide a great gritty and realistic feeling that will draw the player even further into the experience. But as awesome as all of that is I sat down and tore though the campaign in one night. This is easily the biggest problem with Reach, and as much as I'd like to attribute the shortness of the campaign to my incredible skill, it's a little disappointing that there wasn't more of the campaign for me to experience.
Bungie made an ambitious effort to make the character moments and cinematics much more immersive. And while they are several steps forward in the right direction, they still have work to do to hit the level of smoothness or coolness as the Gears of War and Call of Duty games. This was further exemplified in some of the mission moments where you need to board a vehicle or get into the building as a door closes - more often than not, your AI-controlled Noble teammates will be left outside and abandoned which really takes you out of the story aspect of the moment.
The gameplay is similar to that of any other Halo game, but the AI has really been cranked up in Reach. Gone are the days that you just run head-first into a couple of Hunters. If you don't take cover, then you will rightfully die very quickly. The Covenant forces are stronger and smarter then they have ever been before and this adds a needed sense of vitality to the series. The gameplay is challenging and will likely have you swearing at Noble 6 and the rest of your "stupid squad that's not providing any cover fire."
The graphics in Halo: Reach are the best the series has ever seen; it's so much more gritty and realistic then previous installments. And as solid as the graphics are, they don't quite hit the level of detail we've seen in other triple-A Xbox 360 titles. It's the incredibly detailed and beautiful backdrops that really suck you in to every single level that you play through. This is something Bungie continues to excel at.
The backgrounds are rendered so well that sometimes you'll just want to stop the Covenant killing and look at the mountains in the distance, but the overall gameplay graphics can't stand up to that of of say Epic Games' Gears of War 2 and there are a few graphical hick-ups along the way. Some cutscenes will appear mildly (and surprisingly) jumpy, but it's nothing irritatingly noticeable. There are also a lot of white and black fade-outs which interrupt cinematics or animated scenes which hurt the flow of some of they key moments of Reach.
The campaign really is a sight to behold, but it's the multiplayer and Forge modes that will surely draw heaps of attention from anxious Bungie fans. The multiplayer has a new credit system that adds a ton of unlockable armor and features, offering a much more customized and deeper experience. Every match you play online earns you credits that you can then use to purchase a variety of goodies from the new Armory. Anything from new helmets and armor add-ons, armor effects (i.e. a Pigpen-esque stink cloud), and guest voices for Firefight mode. It's all there and it actually gives you something to aim for -- other than achievements -- while playing online.
You'll see a few classic levels return for Reach multiplayer including everyone's favorite Blood Gulch (Hemorrhage), but there are also enough new maps to keep things interesting. The revitalized levels are a lot prettier then you may remember, which is always an added bonus, and the new levels are also enjoyable. Disappointingly, there are only 13 standard levels. We expected Bungie would go all out and create a few more than that, but I guess some of their attention was diverted to Firefight's eight included maps. I know Bungie and 343 Industries will be collaborating on DLC a little down the road, but it would have been nice to get a few more levels from the get-go in the full retail version of Halo: Reach.
There has never been anything heart-stoppingly wrong with Halo's multiplayer, so you won't see anything radically different from previous installments. You still have your standard Red vs. Blue and Lone Wolf matches, but Reach adds several new game modes such as Invasion which will pit the Spartans against the Elites. Race is... well a race, Headhunter has you gathering skulls from deceased opponents, and Stockpile will put your flag carrying skills to the test. All of these new modes are a ton of fun, but what makes the multiplayer feel radically new and different are the new armor abilities.
There are a total of seven different armor abilities that will radically change the way you play the game, and add a layer of strategy that has never been touched on in previous installments. In certain multiplayer games you can choose from a variety of different classes, but sometimes you'll just find different abilities laying around that you can pick up and use. You can only have one ability at a time so becoming comfortable with the different abilities will become crucial if you want to do well online, but armor abilities will really come in handy in the new and improved Firefight mode.
Firefight 2.0 is literally 2.0 times more fun than Halo 3: ODST's, and you'll notice that the second you go to start a match, it actually locates players for you. Yes, Firefight matchmaking is truly a breakthrough in modern gaming. Sarcasm aside, Firefight feels dramatically beefier since its first appearance in ODST; Bungie has added a cornucopia of brand new features that allow you to personally customize every single wave of enemies that you come across. All Elites? Go for it. Gruntpocalypse? But of course. You have the power to do pretty much whatever you want, making you the closest thing to a demi-god of the Halo universe.
Once inside the game you'll notice that you can actually choose a side you want to be on -- either Covenant or UNSC. Three different ordnance will be dropped (and some ordnance are just laying around) at the start of each match and they contain high-caliber weapons that will ensure that you have the ability to smear your enemies' entrails all over the walls. As I mentioned earlier, the A.I. has stepped it up considerably since the last time we saddled up as the Master of all Chiefs and Firefight is no exception, which makes the overall difficulty shoot up considerably. You and your teammates shouldn't be out in the open assassinating grunts - as fun as that is, you will die.
If you liked creating fun things in Halo 3's Forge mode then you are going to be very happy about Reach's new, and dare I say drastically improved, Forge mode. If you've watched the Forge World video then you likely already know that the level creation has stepped up its game considerably. You can freeze objects in mid-air, fuse items together, and have the ability to rotate items with the flick of a button. If you were impressed with the things you came across in Halo 3's limited Forge mode then eager builders will be shocked with what they are able to make in Reach's fully upgraded and vastly improved Forge.
Halo: Reach is the Halo game we've always hoped for, and any small problems the game may have are easily overlooked by almost every other aspect. It's hard to see Bungie leave the series after making a game like this and it's even harder to believe that 343 Industries will be able to follow up with a game better than Halo: Reach, but I guess only time will tell. Reach should be a day one purchase for anyone with an Xbox 360. One thing I never understood was why Bungie kept trying to remind us to "Remember Reach" because after playing through the game and enjoying the multiplayer modes it's a game I know I won't soon forget.
Halo: Reach launches this Tuesday, September 14th only on Xbox 360.