Saturday, January 28, 2012

Halo Reach Review

Okay, so this review is roughly, a year and a half late, but I have a very good reason for that. I never played Halo Reach until recently. There is a good reason for that too. The reason I never played Halo Reach is because I despise the Halo franchise. Yes it’s true. A console-monger that doesn’t like Halo? Perish the thought. To me, anything post Halo: Combat Evolved was an exercise in redundancy, featuring standard shooter gameplay, a convoluted story, wimpy and uninteresting weapons, silly enemies and one of the worst protagonists in modern gaming. Again, Halo: Combat Evolved was new and fresh, and actually gave Master Chief some character, so that one isn’t bad. Every subsequent chapter, however, was. In any event, I managed to get a free copy of Halo Reach and decided to give it a shot. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to play.

Halo Reach, to me, is almost an anti-Halo game. Much like how an anti-hero performs heroic actions, but is still not exactly a hero, Halo Reach still has all the elements that make Halo great, but has fundamentally changed the foundation in a way that doesn’t simply revitalize the franchise, but transcends its predecessors. It’s strange, because the gameplay hasn’t changed at all. It’s still more or less, go here and shoot that. This gameplay style, while simple, can still be quite effective when executed properly. I never felt that previous Halo titles executed the gameplay quite as effective Reach does. What contributes to the success of the gameplay amounts to the sum of several minor changes, ranging from the way weapons feel when fired, to the non-regenerating health system. These changes intensify what would otherwise be boring and repetitive FPS basics.

In previous Halo games, the weapons fired like pellet guns, making it a little hard to tell of you were trying to kill your enemies, or play laser tag with them. Of course, the occasional silliness of the Covenant didn’t do much to help that debate. The second I took my first shot in Reach, I was literally stunned. The rifle kicked back like a mule, offering the visceral intensity that one would expect from a gun when blasting the brains out of an alien. I stared at the screen for a good few minutes and said, “What game is this?” That was not the only change either. Enemies in Halo Reach are actually threatening, believe it or not. The Elites finally live up to their namesake, carrying better weapons, higher hit points, stronger shields and smarter AI. Ah yes, AI. Decent AI is always tough to manage in any game, but here in Reach, they did a great job of creating enemies that not only want to kill, but would also like to survive. Enemies will pull back when they are getting defeated, as will your companions. The Covenant will flank you, out maneuver you, and kill the shit out of you whenever possible. Dying is much easier in Reach as well, now that Bungie abandoned the idea of regenerating health. Once you get shot and your health bar blinks red, you can’t simply run away and hang out until you heal up. No sir, you will need to scrounge for a medkit. This subtle difference in mechanics literally changes everything about how you play. You need to be more cautious and more alert; otherwise, it’s back to the checkpoint with you. The open sandbox level design also contributes to both you and your enemies’ tactics. Each area is very vast and wide, giving players opportunities to play around with some tactical play (like flanking maneuvers) but also gives you a sense of scale. Vehicles also have much better control than in previous Halo games, and the vehicular combat has always been one of the better executed elements of the Halo franchise. Adding better control to an already good system is always a plus. Each of these relatively minor changes in mechanics have a big impact on the gameplay, making Halo Reach the most intense and visceral Halo experience yet.

One significant change in the gameplay is the addition of the Armor Abilities. They are similar to Halo 3’s equipment feature, however, in Halo 3, the equipment was a one-time use only set up. The Armor Abilities in Reach are a long lasting tool in your arsenal, able to be used as long as you are in possession of it. Sprint, Stealth, Decoy, Jet Pack, etc. there are a multitude of cool abilities that complement the individual player and their style. Take me for example. I would describe my play style as fast and furious. I charge in first and blast my way through to where the enemies are thickest, killing everything in my path. Friends of mine have referred to me as a freight train. The downside of playing this way is that I tend to attract a lot of attention. Attention that usually takes the form of plasma grenades. With these new Armor Abilities, I can easily find a power that is customized to play style, in this case, Armor Lock, which is a strong shield that makes me invincible for a short period when activated. Very handy against grenades. Of course, it also renders me immobile, but at least I’m in a cool pose. The Armor Abilities in Halo Reach add yet another layer to the individuality and customizability for the player.

One of the most effective changes made in Halo Reach was the narrative. The single player campaign mode isn’t just Master Chief being awesome and laying waste to everything in his way. Nay, nay. Halo Reach tells a dark and somber tale about soldiers, war, and sacrifice. Halo Reach takes place on, you guessed it, Reach! Yes, the world that was decimated by the Covenant prior to the events of the first Halo. Reach tells that very story. You are Noble Six, the newest member of Noble Team, an elite unit of Spartans that are sent in only when situations are at their roughest. Noble Six may be a new member of the team, but he is far from a rookie. In fact, Six is likely the most experienced member of Noble Team, having achieved the rank of Lieutenant and the rating of Hyper-Lethal, one of only two Spartans to do so (gee, who could the other be). He has now been reassigned to Noble Team to investigate some disturbances on Reach. Of course, nobody in their right mind would send a unit of six Spartans to investigate, so there is obviously more going on than meets the eye.

The story is far more focused then any previous Halo game, offering up an action packed and emotionally driven narrative experience. Once again, Bungie wisely chooses to focus on a simple yet effective style of writing, offering up a fairly clear goal that quickly escalates into a much more difficult and dangerous effort. Bungie makes a lot of bold moves with this tale, some that I am sure will piss many fans off in some way, but it’s this level of boldness and unpredictability that escalates the story of Halo Reach to something quite unique. The story never gets convoluted or contrived, but instead allows the characters to sell the story. And make no mistake, there are actual characters in this game. Each one has their own personalities and traits. As the story progresses, you get to spend plenty of time with all of them, making the inevitability of Reach’s fate that much more impactful. By the time the story ends, you will care about each and every member of Noble team. This is thanks largely to the “team” mindset of Halo Reach. You are working as a unit the whole time, and each character has their own talents and expertise to bring to the table. Once these great characters have solidified their place in your heart, the results are devastating, shocking and heart wrenching. Given the fact that the planet of Reach is decimated before Halo 1 begins, I think it’s obvious that Halo Reach does not exactly end well.

One other aspect that makes Halo Reach’s story so effective is that Noble Six is fully customizable, right down to the chromosomes. That’s right, Noble Six can be female. Bungie doesn’t skimp out on the character either. Six is fully voiced, requiring both a male and female voice actor. It is also worth noting that Noble Six is bar none, Halo’s chattiest protagonist. Where the Rookie in ODST was a complete mute, and Master Chief had about 3 minutes of dialog spanning across 3 separate games, Six always has a comment to interject here and there. He doesn’t say much, but he talks way more than what I was expecting, which is good because the dialog and voice acting is awesome. Six’s armor can also be customized with many different pieces that can be purchased with credits. As you play the game and complete challenges, you will rank up and gain credits to buy armor pieces through the store. It doesn’t take much to get Six to stand out, and the armor you design is what Six will wear in all of the cut scenes. This is once again, a small modification for the franchise, but one that has a tremendous impact on the immersion.

But what would a Halo game be without the multiplayer? Yes the multiplayer is back, featuring more of the same modes as previous entries, and a few new ones as well. Of course, we all know that Halo is the king of multiplayer, mostly because of the sheer amount of game modes they have. As far as multiplayer goes, it is mostly the same, but thanks to the gameplay changes, multiplayer in Halo Reach is superior to any other Halo game.

One new addition to the multiplayer is Firefight. It is essentially, Halo’s take on Horde Mode. Waves of enemies cycle into the maps while you and your buddies defend yourselves and attempt to survive. As much fun as Firefight is, it’s not as good as Horde, and I think a lot of that is a result of the fact that Gears is cover based and Halo is not. I personally believe a Horde style game mode is best served in a cover based shooter. This is not to say that Firefight is bad. I’m just saying that defending positions is frustrating when you can’t take cover. Firefight is actually an immensely fun experience, especially on the Arcade setting. Infinite ammo, infinite respawns, and the craziest weapons in the game is what separates Arcade from the classic style. The only thing that stops you is the twenty minute time limit. I never played Firefight in ODST, but if I were a betting man, I would say that Reach blows ODST’s version out of the water.

Of course, everything else form Halo is here. Driving, shooting, killing, defending, being an absolute badass, etc. The difference between Reach and all other Halo games is that Reach finally picks apart their gameplay, and enhances it for the next generation, offering an intense and satisfying gaming experience, one that will be remembered well into the future. What shocks me most is that I am the one saying this. As I said, I have never been a huge Halo fan, but I am a huge fan of Halo Reach. Halo Reach is simple and effective, enhancing what needed to enhanced, and leaving be what remains excellent. Complete with exciting gunfights, beautifully colorful graphics, a well written story, exceptional multiplayer and wisely enhanced shooter elements, Halo Reach isn’t just a fantastic game, it’s the best Halo game yet. Perhaps that doesn’t mean much coming from me, a guy who didn’t care for more than half of the previous Halo games, but it’s hard to deny that Reach is the definition of excellence. We all know this is Bungie’s last Halo game, and what a way to go. Ending the franchise where the story began is not only fitting, but also brings the series full circle in a way Halo 3 was unable to. I give Halo Reach a 9.5 out of 10.

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