Ten years, four games, tens of millions sold, and a legacy no one thought possible. This is it, the final curtain call. Always inevitable, but startlingly incomprehensible. Halo and Bungie's final kiss is Reach, and my God, what a beautiful kiss indeed.
It's not love at first sight though. You pull open the case, and pop the disc into the tray. You haven't seen a new Bungie intro sequence in forever. When you do, it almost brings a tear to your eye. Marty O'Donnell's score swells. Images of the cosmos pan across the screen. You're in heaven, and you just can't wait to see what new tricks your baby has learnt these last few years. Pick the sex of your Spartan? This is new, but you brush it off as a gimmick. The first reel rolls, you brace yourself and….. something's not quite right. There's large open vistas. There's allies running around with you on the battlefield. Enemies shoot energy-based weapons. You drive around in vehicles. Oh dear, were you expecting anything new? This is Halo, the same girl you've known for years. She's done her best to lose weight, tone, firm, and dress up nicely. She's the best she's ever looked, but she's still the same. She's never going to be like the flawless girl you see in the print ads, but you're kidding yourself if you thought otherwise. If you've never liked Halo *ever*, you won't like it now. If you've been holding out for something as exceptional as Halo: CE, you're lucky that Bungie's last Halo is just the game you've been looking for. Oh, and she seems to really really like you too.
The essence of the campaign (not like you didn't know already) is simple: literally minutes before the events of the first Halo, the human colony Reach was invaded en masse by Covenant forces. The days leading up to the event is seen through the eyes of Noble Team, a small group of Spartan-IIIs (and one Spartan-II), not one of which is Noble Six, the player character. It's obvious throughout the campaign Bungie left no line of code to fend for itself. Nothing of its design has gone to waste. No Library level, no Cortana level, no backtracking/repeat levels, nada. After the disappointing change of guard in Halo 3, the Covenant are once again an absolute blast to fight, most notably the Elites, who are back to the menace and terror they inspired the first time around.
Levels are deliciously varied and expertly paced. Activating com-arrays, destroying spires, sniping unsuspecting patrols, fighting in low gravity, and of course the much touted (and rather excellent) dog fight in space. Nothing stretches Halo beyond its elastic limit, though all greatly contribute to its immense replay value. For the first time since Halo: CE, it's not an obvious choice between the single player or the multiplayer. Something has to be said of that epilogue too. If you've been a fan of Halo for the last decade, it's going to make you whoop for joy. Even if you just joined the Halo nation, it's undeniably stylish. All send-offs should be this good.
Despite all that, the campaign does have its drawbacks. For all its consistency, Reach never has a defining levels and/or set pieces that makes you grin from ear to ear. The original had hunters on the Silent Cartographer. Halo 2 had the Scorpion in Metropolis. Halo 3 had the scarab on The Storm. Reach has none of those, and it's a little disappointing considering Bungie never actually faltered in gameplay this time around.
Worse still, is the narrative direction. Ever since Halo 2, Bungie has had trouble telling the story of Halo. It's a mix of two things: Halo: CE reveled in its B-movie antics and stereotypical characters. Halo 2 took the entire soap seriously, and the series has followed its demise ever since. I'm not sure how or why, but in my first play through of the Reach campaign, I did not understand the plot at all. Things were happening, but I wasn't allowed to take it all in. It's such a shame because when I did see what was happening upon multiple playthroughs, I did learn to appreciate the plot. It should have been digestible on the first run though. If Half-Life, Bioshock and Call of Duty can do it, there's no reason Halo cannot.
To add insult to injury, none of the characters ever get time to develop, and yet there's ample opportunity to develop them. I don't ask for three dimensional characters (I quite like two dimensional characters done right), but if you do want to tug heartstrings - and Halo: Reach tries in vain to do so more than once - investing in your characters would be a good option. What I did like was the ability to personalize Noble Six. I have played the campaign several times now and it feels like an emotional investment to see your very own character making his/her mark on the field (I chose a girl. I shan't be a guy in fear of insulting the Master Chief himself). Nevertheless, CJ Cowan, you've apparently been the Director of Cinematics since Halo 2. Step your game up, it's becoming a nuisance.
Once the campaign is done and dusted, Bungie wants you to log some hours onto the multiplayer. Looking at the unlockables, there's some serious hours ahead of you. What's there to unlock? Cosmetic alterations. Other games have presented unlockable perks that change the way you play the game. Halo: Reach, apparently, just gives you bits of armor. It almost seems pointless, that is, until you obsessively customize your Spartan/Elite model after every significant credit gain and fawn over your creation. Even if you aren't swayed by the ability to have your own spartan kicking l337 butt online, the multiplayer is as good as ever. There's not much to be said about Halo multiplayer that hasn't been said. It simply is one of the best around, and woe to those who don't like it. There's other unbalanced, perk-obsessive, camping-laden games out there. This is not one of them.
There's a couple of new additions to the Halo line-up. Firefight has been significantly beefed up from it's previous outing in Halo 3: ODST (it has matchmaking now), and Forge has been expanded to include even greater customization and includes the hardware-defying Forge World. But then there's Invasion. Essentially Halo's take on cIass-based gameplay, one team are the Spartans, and one team are the Elites. Two maps are offered: Boneyard and Spire, with Spartans and Elites switching roles of the attackers and defenders respectively. Attackers have several minutes to complete each phase before the time runs out. Each phase scores one point. After each round, teams switch sides, and either try to score points or prevent the attackers from scoring. Even if you've played Unreal Tournament 2004's "Assault" mode to death, or got to grips with Crysis's overly complex Power Struggle, this is a very welcome addition to Halo's multiplayer, and even with the asymmetrical classes, it's just as accessible yet hard to master like any of Halo's other gametypes.
The entire package is wrapped up in the most gorgeous streamlined interface I've seen in a console game. Scratch that. Halo: Reach can sometimes make the venerable PC platform Steam look clunky. Everything in the game is accessible in a few clicks. Need to get from Invasion to Firefight? Done in three seconds. Need to get from Team SWAT to Tip of the Spear? Just as quick. Bungie may have moved from the Mac platform to greener pastures, but they've got a knack for presentation that would make Steve Jobs proud.
Halo's audio-visual package is as top tier as you'd expect. It does not have the most immediately flattering image, but it does things consoles just shouldn't be able to do. Halo's levels are huge, and the geometry stretches on for miles. On top of that, it's got levels of action that could make a true sandbox title blush. And yet, it's more comparable to the better looking games than the mediocre looking ones. The engine chugs when the action heats up (reminds me of the glorious days of Halo: CE), though its only really noticeable when there should be no frame drops at all, such as in cutscenes.
If some still find Reach technically disappointing, they can't deny that the art direction is superb. No color has been drained from Halo's unique look, but the palette has switched from bright pastels to blood reds and sombre blues. Marty O'Donnell supplements this with his music and sound spaces to great effect once again. All the weapons sound as powerful as they now look, and the Covenant speak in the alien tongue they left behind in Halo: CE. Even the grunts don't speak English anymore. The soundtrack is not full of epic, space-faring concertos, but more a subdued, melancholy harmony of strings, synths, and foreboding percussion. Every way you cut it, a thick scent of loss and despair emanate from all corner's of Reach's presentation.
Bear with me here, as I'm going to conclude on a more personal note. It was both hard and easy for me to review Halo: Reach. On the one hand, this is the series that brought me into the world of shooting games and made me appreciate twitch-based gameplay for what it was. It gave me a voracious appetite for the Half-Lifes and Battlefields and Unreal Tournaments, and while many of them are good - in fact in some cases better than Halo - they never captured me as much as Halo did. It's hard for me to review with such a bias. Yet at the same time it's easy because in all honesty, the moment the credits finished and the epilogue wrapped up, I knew I was done with shooters. It doesn't matter if Bungie and Activision's new brainchild scores a perfect 10. It doesn't matter if Battlefield 3 becomes a clinical addiction. It doesn't matter if Half-Life 3 cures cancer. It's finished. Neither do I look at Halo anymore as a current courtship, but as a mutual divorcée. We're still good friends, but our time has come to an end.
In saying that, Bungie's swan song is beautiful in every way it should have been. A sensational single player, world class multiplayer, and superb content stuffed all into one disc. It should have collapsed in on itself. It didn't. Bungie, you son of a gun.