Halo broke the mould when it was released on Xbox 360, convincing many for the first time that a first person shooter could be played effectively without a keyboard and mouse. Halo's controller-friendly interface took frustration out of the equation and let players get on with the fun of laying waste to hordes of enemies. That it later introduced a new kind of frustration in the form of "The Library" level is neither here nor there - the designers probably hadn't anticipated gamers getting that far.
Bungie also fleshed out the universe they constructed in the game's narrative with a lot of supporting material, including books and web-based content. When the game spawned a sequel, no one was particularly surprised; now it's a universe whose value is measured in billions and few would contend it's undeserved. The world of Halo is solid, deep and the games tend to deliver in spades when it comes to value and playability.
So here we are then - the sixth Halo game, which is also the very first when looked at in the series' timeline. Set before the discovery of the titular Halo, Reach tells a tale of Spartans on the remote planet of... Reach. Don't worry, there will be no spoilers here - the story is something we'd like to save for you to discover as you play. It's definitely worthwhile avoiding spoilers so be careful what you read online.
That said, to give you a bit of context, you're part of a squad of Spartans. Your squadmates are gruff, tough and packed with personalities gleaned from war movies. For the hardcore Halo fan, who might be worried Spartans have personalities, these Spartans are from the Spartan III project - as such, they're not immune to behaving exactly like movie tough guys. Or something. Point is, there's dialogue and character exposition as the game develops.
Gameplay, for the uninitiated, is 80% first person shooter. That it's 80% might be something of a surprise for some - previously it was more like 90%. Now, in addition to the occasional Warthog (or similar ground-based vehicle) you will also occasionally pilot other vehicles - including the Sabre spaceship and a helicopter / dropship hybrid aircraft which is new to the series.
These flying sections are surprisingly good, with the space stuff in particular good enough to stand up as a mechanic for a game dedicated to that style of gameplay. The controls are a natural variant of the existing Halo controls and your ship feels lithe and responsive beneath your thumbs. It's fun and there needs to be more of it, ASAP.
In the first person shooter sections, you can (as always) switch between two active weapons, allowing you to tactically prepare for anticipated encounters without letting you just have everything like FPS games of days gone by. You can also carry two of each of two types of grenade, a normal "explosive" type and a sticky plasma grenade which attaches to enemies (if you're a good enough shot) for maximum effect. Enemies are pretty damn good at avoiding them, though, and their radius is small. Combined with your limited ability to carry the things, their use is at best situational and at worst, very occasional.
Unlike earlier games, you can no longer wield dual handguns. This does mean you can always fire grenades now (as your left hand isn't tied up with a pistol) but for those that liked to obliterate Covenant as John Woo intended, tough luck.
The weapons are a mixed bag, as always - there are a lot of them and they're universally pretty accurate (although the usual FPS tenet of "only fire in bursts" still applies) but fail to pack much of a punch. Even the little grunt enemies can generally handle a few hits, however headshots are still rewarded with bonus damage. Don't be shocked if you have to shoot an elite in the head many times before he drops, though, which is something of a shock to the system after all these years of Call of Duty and their ilk.
Enemies are largely drawn from the existing stable however their behavior and survivability has had (sometimes dramatic) re-balancing. Hunters, for example, are now an incredibly formidable super foe - while Brutes are pretty damn easy to dispatch. The net effect of these changes is that even the Halo hardcore are going to need to rethink their strategies when faced with waves of otherwise familiar enemies. Although rest assured, the Drones are still damned annoying and hard to hit.
You're not in this alone - it's very, very rare that you'll ever be doing anything in Reach without some sort of AI cohort tagging along for the ride. While they stop short of outright worship (like that afforded Too Human's Baldur) there is never any doubt that you're a superior to them in every way. Sure, occasionally that's made obvious by the way they talk to you or behave around you, but typically it's underlined by their boneheaded stupidity.
The number of times the AI completely smeg it up, often resulting in your untimely demise (or at least, significant frustration) is mind boggling - it's hard to imagine there wasn't several meetings at Bungie where the thought of writing them out of the game would have come up.
They are at their most appalling when driving, which can be avoided by taking the steering wheel yourself, but they also do daft things like climb on top of shield / miscellaneous cover whereby they're summarily executed by any Covenant that happen to be nearby. Fortunately 90% of the allied forces you team up with throughout the game are completely inconsequential and the ones that aren't are invincible anyway so you don't need to worry about protecting them.
A lot about Halo has changed for Reach, not least of which are the gameplay options at your disposal. Sure, slamming someone with the butt of your gun is still hilariously overpowered (10 sniper rounds to the head won't make him flinch yet a smack to the power armor with a pistol drops him to the ground?) but otherwise a lot has changed. For a start, you can customise the crap out of your armor, providing visual distinction that goes a lot deeper than just the colour (but you can choose that, too). Ok; so chances are good most of your enemies will never notice the particular helmet variant you chose, unless you stand still a lot and they have a sniper rifle, but it goes a long way to making you feel more attached to your Spartan. Bungie even go so far as to include your variations in the cutscenes as the story develops which really helps tie you in to the events as they unfold. It's a nice touch - even if your selections are only skin deep (there are no gameplay changes as a result of your choices).
Beyond appearance, there are choices you can make which have a significant impact in how you play. Throwing out Halo 3's temporary enhancements, Reach introduces a new backpack system which effectively changes the "class" of character you play. Options on offer include temporary invulnerability (which unfortunately prevents you from moving for the duration) sprint and a jet pack. The jet pack is arguably the biggest game changer, at least initially, significantly changing the options on offer in a tactical, cover-based firefight. Taking off and blasting someone from the air is incredibly satisfying - just be aware that dead reckoning and skill in the hands of your enemy can leave you a sitting (or flying?) duck.
Other packs include the hologram decoy and active camouflage (read: semi invisibility) - each of which has their place in singleplayer, of course, but really only come into their own in multiplayer. This is the kind of mechanic which will result in waves of playstyle as players latch on to a mechanic, assume its overpowered, and then get defeated by someone who cleverly deploys a counter-strategy to neuter your approach. It's a natural extension to the gameplay and works very well, both from a control mechanic and a balance mechanic - the latter of which can (and likely will) be tweaked once the game is released.
At about 8-10 hours in length, the campaign feels like the right sort of size. You never run out of environments (many are reused for multiplayer) each of which is well fleshed out and feels like a natural, real place. The story itself is oddly paced, leaving the player wondering if they've finished the game at several points before picking up the threads and rebuilding the narrative once more. Overall, it's a good story - and one that is completely different to the tale told in the Halo books.
If you're into the Halo universe, there's a lot to like about the story - Bungie are not shy about giving the fans lots of little nods as they drop all sorts of names, sequences and voices into the mix. That's not to say those with short memories or even those new to the game will feel too left out; it's more the case that the hardcore fan will spend a lot of time saying things like "oh that's the guy from ... " and "I remember them talking about that in the books," and so on. It's nice, and it makes you feel like this actually happened somehow, with more depth that seems reasonable to expect from a videogame tale.
Visually Halo is, yet again, distinctively Halo. Bits of it are jaw-droppingly gorgeous while other bits are positively pedestrian and look almost within the remit of the rather more humble original Xbox. Not all of these sub-par visuals are fair to attribute to reaching the limits of the 360 either, with some sequences simply poorly framed, lit or otherwise sub-optimally leveraging the capabilities of Microsoft's box of tricks. Fortunately the good bits and the variety are enough to ensure the score for this department is above average - just don't expect it to be artistic or boundary-pushing with every frame.
Technically too, like its predecessors, Reach can be underwhelming. Occasional pauses as the game loads in the next section of the level or, more commonly, jittering cutscenes (related to loading again, perhaps?) are frequent reminders that you're playing a videogame. Sure, it's no Mass Effect but it is definitely noticeable and occasionally disappointing as a result. This review was completed at 720p so your experience, like your resolution, may vary.
Game audio is also, for the dedicated fan, unmistakably Halo in origin. The combination of gunfire (with recognizable weapons easily picked out in any firefight) and sweeping orchestral scores could never been mistaken for another game. Unfortunately the music has lost some of its grand scope, never quite attaining the lofty heights seen in Halo 3. Occasionally, the music for a given level doesn't seem to match the mood nor the place the player believes they are in the narrative, leaving you wondering if perhaps you're missing something more dramatic than exactly what's unfolding in front of you.
The multiplayer in Halo is arguably a big part of the point for many gamers. While many will beat the drum that the story is all and that finding out what happened before Master Chief is the goal, many others will skip the singleplayer (unless using it to unlock content for multiplayer) and dive straight into to vast array of multiplayer options on offer. That Bungie have managed to cater for two such vastly different markets and do so incredibly well is testament to their commitment to the universe. It's hard to think of another example where each half of the game is so completely and lovingly fleshed out.
There are many, many options on offer in both co-operative and competitive modes. Microsoft claim that Halo Reach sets the benchmark in multiplayer and it's hard to find any way by which to reasonably rebut that statement. New gameplay types have been added to the series' formidable selection, most notably, the excellent headhunters mode. Like Flaghunters in Tribes, the goal is to slaughter your enemies and collect what they drop (in this case, skulls) before banking your bounty in a contested goal. What makes it so fun? The more skulls you hold before banking, the more points if you bank them. But the more skulls you have, the more attention you'll get from other players who are greedy for your hoard for themselves... It's fun, frantic and a natural fit for Halo.
You can even create your own levels, with extensive improvements to the Forge system that lets players customize existing maps - should you be so inclined.
So, as per the custom, it's time to form some sort of conclusion - as if a few sentences can sum up the monumentally deep experience on offer (you'll note the "10" for value - the scale doesn't go to 11, for shame). The singleplayer stuff is good to great, with a lot of fan service for those equipped with the experience required to recognise it. Clumsy AI ruins some of it and poor presentation hamfists other bits, while technical glitches (including occasionally vanishing enemies - even ones that fill your screen!) can make it feel a bit rushed. It's also far from ground breaking, with the core experience being damn near identical (albeit in brand new environs) to the Halos that went before.
The multiplayer is so good, however, as to be worthy of full price alone - something few other multiplayer-only games can claim. There are so many changes, improvements and additions that a simple listing (let alone detailed examination and evaluation) of them would take more space than is on offer here.
So should you buy it? If you like Halo, it's a resounding yes - this is the best Halo ever (even if it is - by far - the hardest). If you like multiplayer first-person shooters, it's an "almost definitely" (fans of realistic shooters need not apply). If you want the world's most polished single player experience? A less enthusiastic response is appropriate. So based on that, and (hopefully) some of the other words in this review, you really need to decide if it's for you all by yourself.
And, slight spoiler alert, watch the credits.