It's been almost a decade since Bungie Software were adopted as a subsidiary of the Microsoft Game Division, legally changed their name, and defined the Xbox as a gaming platform. Halo: Combat Evolved set a standard when it debuted, and with each subsequent release in Master Chief's trilogy, Bungie somehow found a way to outdo both themselves and the first-person shooter genre. The term “Halo-killer” was coined for a reason, and the amount of flattery that has been showed through imitation is only testament to their juggernaut.
This, then, is the stage Bungie has set for their final Halo project, Halo: Reach. As a product that's meant to open up a story arc, after finishing the game, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better concluding experience. It's a compelling paradox sure enough, and it's part of what makes Reach arguably the overall strongest game of the series. The other part? Polished tried-and-true formulae. Simply put, the prequel exists like something of a “Greatest Hits” compilation to Bungie's opus. The best features of the series have been cherry picked and tweaked to create the purest Halo game to-date (even without the iconic Master Chief), but they don't make it 'the' shooter of this generation.
In many ways, Reach boarders on playing as just another generic futuristic shooter. All of the elements are there: You're a new member in an elite, six-person squad sent on a relatively routine assignment when all of a sudden you have to shoot your way out of Dodge and save humanity. Despite it being a bit vague and too quick to the punchline sometimes, Reach's story draws some strength in its exposition and scope. Controls-wise you move the nameless “Noble Six” (a.k.a. “Six”), and in-game cut scenes follow you and your team, but you're never connected with your character. The connection here, instead, is with the fight for survival, which becomes more compelling the further deeper in it you get.
The hook may be a bit slow to take, but its worth trudging through hordes of Covenant enemies to simply watch where Noble Team goes next. Beautifully crafted, Bungie has put such a great eye of detail and film-worthy direction in the non-playable portions of the game they overshadow the actual gameplay of the campaign. The inclusion of new armor Abilities like shield regenerating shields or jet packs and out-of-atmosphere dogfights showcase more open, multi-level environments with incredible backdrops, but their addition does little to hide what distills down repetitive gunplay. There's not much else to do in Reach than shoot at the same enemies we have before in the past (and a few added models), making the thirty or so minutes between cut scenes in the ten-chapter campaign mode feel more like well-paced filler.
Ultimately, however, Reach isn't about the story. Despite what the marketing blitz may want you to think, and how other games have taught you to perceive the inclusion of multiplayer elements, Bungie makes it clear Reach is essentially an ultimate multiplayer suite. The campaign jumpstarts a trilogy, but it's built around a scalable difficulty dependent on the number of people playing with you locally or online. Firefight returns from ODST with fully adjustable settings and is more accessible being playable even if your friends aren't around either on your couch or on Xbox LIVE. A new multi-objective mode, Invasion, requires even more communication than games of CTF when playing with strangers. Essentially, everything in Halo is finally accompanied with matchmaking options, availing you an incredible amount of multiplayer choices.
Both Forge and file sharing return to expand on the default multiplayer content making your choices almost limitless. A few recognizable maps from past Halo games get facelifts and permeate too much of the included list, but with the Forge's increased budget and size, you won't be playing the latest version of “Blood Gulch” for long with your friends.
It will be interesting to see what comes next after Grifball, not only due to the expansion of the Forge, but with the briefly aforementioned Abilities. Undoubtedly it will be the community who will match larger levels with sprinting and rocketing Spartans in spontaneously amusing style. Abilities fit comfortably well in the old shoot-melee-grenade strategy of Halo as holograms of your soldier distract enemies and temporary invulnerability keeps you alive long enough to call in backup; there just has to be unexplored utility for all of them.
Bungie seems to have learned a bit from others, too, in their quest for perfection. Whether in a campaign session or matchmaking, achieving different Challenges level up your Spartan and reward you with currency used to buy pieces of armor, which translate to all game modes. Goal achievement is a nice addition to the Halo experience, it's just not as rewarding as Call of Duty's setup. Here, purchasable items are simply for aesthetics and sadly have no impact on your headshot abilities.
Armor permutations are finite, but they give you somewhat of a sense of being a beautiful and unique snowflake in a flurry of laser blasts and hail of bullets. The game handles your ever-changing looks well as cut scenes reflect your protective chic, albeit with a few framerate stutters here and there, whether you choose to assume the role of Six as either Spartan or Spartaness. (Yes, thankfully women kick ass in Reach, even when they somehow shake their hips a bit too much in a war zone.) To get to all of this gaming, Bungie flex one of their strongest muscles: user interface design. Moving between menus is seamless and the ability to swap out bits of armor or review past game statistics anytime before a match starts ensures you're never bored while in a queue.
And what would a Halo game be without Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori? Reach's soundtrack brings a specific meaning to “Dynamic Duo.” This time around they pull back the hymns and soft piano melodies, instead favoring a range of hard-hitting tribal and militaristic percussion, edgy, synthesized guitar riffs, and smooth string crescendos. Whether you are a fan of their work, or just of masterfully composed soundtracks, you should be equally excited for Reach's OST release on September 28th.
Less enthralling, aurally, is what makes up the game's acting. Each of the Noble Team members leave some emotionless, apathetic moments. Six has few lines which gives her enough character to be human, but the rest of the team comes off as abrasive, cliched and campy. The most impactful moments are when O'Donnell and Salvatori do the talking—do yourself a favor and stick around after the credits roll.
There's something disheartening thinking about Bungie calling it a wrap on the Halo series. Whether you love the games, hate them, or couldn't give a frag less about them, their popularity and persistence has been undeniable. Reach punctuates a legacy, one that 343 Industries will now have to bear as they assume control of the property. As a Halo game it rivals the nostalgia Combat Evolved instilled in us nearly a decade ago due to fully realized online multiplayer components and customizability; as a shooter, however, it feels almost as dated in so much there's little separating the core experience from past iterations.
How many hours are you going to wait in line? What's your first act as part of Noble Team? This is an event, tell us about it on Twitter @Gamers_Hell