Halo: Reach Xbox 360 review

Can Bungie’s swansong live up to the hype? Aaron find out as he tackles Halo: Reach…

It’s fair to say that the majority of Halo fans are interested in one thing: multiplayer. Ever since Halo 2 exploded onto Xbox Live, online gaming hasn’t been the same. If it weren’t for a certain Infinity Ward title, Halo would surely still be number one in the online charts, and despite stiff competition, Bungie’s online fragfest is still hugely popular. Hell, people were still playing Halo 2 until recently, when the servers were closed down.

So, now that Bungie is waving goodbye to the Halo franchise and moving on to other things, can the team deliver the best Halo yet? And, will the usually slim line and less than stellar campaign actually deliver the goods for solo players?

Events of Reach, as if I really needed to explain, take place shortly before the original Halo, making this a prequel. It tells the story of the fall of the titular planet, one of humanity’s most important colonies, and introduces players to a group of Spartan super soldiers designated Noble Team.

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As the game opens, the quiet and rather beautiful Reach is invaded by the Covenant, who are, thankfully, back to full-on Alien badass status. The Elites are back in force, as are the Grunts, Jackals, Hunters and more. There’s no silly Arbiter crap, just an alien race determined to wipe out any resistance, and Reach is all the better for it.

One of the biggest challenges Bungie faced with Reach was telling a Titanic-like story. Just as with the ill-fated cruise liner, we all know how Reach’s predicament will end, and so, making a campaign that doesn’t feel pointless was always going to be tough. Sure, it’s a blast to see Reach fall, but in order for the game to be enjoyable, Bungie would need to create a sense of hope too, even one that’s clearly misguided.

Luckily, the team has managed just that, and playing as newcomer Spartan, Number Six (I’m not a number…), who joins Noble Team at the outset, carries players through a series of impressive missions.

Noble and nobility

Fighting alongside the other Noble Team members helps give the series a sense of personality, as each is explored a little as the story progresses, and builds up the feel of fighting against all odds with a band of brothers. Sure, it’s hardly classic writing, but it’s a little more impressive than Master Chief’s outings, where the hero rarely said a word and showed no emotion at all.

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As for gameplay, this is pure Halo, and fans will know exactly what to expect. For most of the campaign you’ll be rushed from battle to battle, with the occasional set piece skirmish playing out. The variety, however, is far improved from previous efforts. There’s minimal corridor blasting this time, and there’s far more open environments to fight through.

Actual situations are varied too, and along the course of your adventure you’ll engage foes on open vehicle battles, infiltrate a base in a night time sniper mission, destroy Covenant facilities and even head out into space to destroy a battleship.

It’s all hugely enjoyable stuff, and, of course, is as smooth and silky as ever. Bungie knows exactly how to make a rock solid and buttery FPS, and Reach is no different. The seamless integration of on foot and vehicle combat is spot on, and the enemy AI is superb, especially if you play on harder difficulties where even the lowliest of grunt can outflank and take you down.

The addition of a brief, but nonetheless welcome spate of ship to ship space combat is another highlight of an already rich campaign, and these sections, although a little on the basic side, and also a little easy, sit very nicely within the story, and help to cement the planet-sized scope of the conflict.

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Another addition is the inclusion of armour abilities, replacing Halo 3’s equipment pickups. These abilities can be used as many times as you like (after a brief cool down), and include dash, cloak, hologram, armour lock and jetpack. In single player, these abilities can come in very handy, especially on higher difficulties, with dash, cloak and jetpack being the best, even if cloak lasts far too long and makes some situations very easy.

Stoic and heroic

I was a little disappointed, however, in the choice to use yet another mostly silent and expressionless protagonist. I’m of the opinion that Master Chief was a poor gaming icon, being simply a bloke in a big, green spacesuit, and little more. This time you’re a bloke in a big, custom designed spacesuit, and it’s hard to really become absorbed in the story with such a detached avatar. It’s admittedly a small issue, but I’d have liked to experience the Halo universe from a less enigmatic central character.

ODST had the right idea here, with multiple playable characters aside the silent rookie, but Reach has moved away. Because of this, the band of brothers style Noble team are more cardboard cut-out than fleshed out characters, as they simply bounce lines off you with minimal interaction.

Still, despite the lack of human involvement in the story, it’s a fitting beginning/end to the series and is a great way for Bungie to tie things up, and although the single player is only around 8-10 hours, depending on difficulty and experience, it’s thrilling from start to finish.

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Fragelujah!

As I said earlier, though, the majority will consider the story an added bonus to the main event of the multiplayer, and Reach is clearly designed with this in mind. As good as the campaign is, the multiplayer is several magnitudes better.

In fact, Bungie has made no excuses this time, and no sooner have you fired up the game than you’re asked to create your own custom Spartan armour and service tag. This is used in all multiplayer modes (and throughout the single player campaign), and as you play the various game modes (this time including single player), you’ll earn credits, which you can use to buy more armour parts and effects. Some parts are available to buy right away, whilst others require advancement to higher ranks, a la COD. Whilst these parts are all cosmetic only, it’s a nice touch. What’s more, Reach even lets users play as female Spartans, even though Mjolnir armour doesn’t exactly make it instantly obvious.

Once into the multiplayer proper, Reach offers all of the expansive content found in Halo 3, with a bevy of extras thrown in. Chief amongst these is the addition of a refined version of ODST‘s Firefight, which sees up to four players work cooperatively to fight off wave after wave of Covenant. It’s a nice change from Halo‘s usually competitive heavy action and will, no doubt, become hugely popular.

Versus modes are where most will spend time, though, and with all returning modes being welcome, the new additions are also great, with stockpile being particularly entertaining, with it’s reworking of classic CTF rules, and Headhunter will be a firm favourite of Halo players with something to prove, as they frantically try to keep hold of their scalps and return them to the goal to score.

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Another mode is Generator Defence. This pits Spartans versus Elites, with one team defending some generators, and the other trying to destroy them. It’s simple enough, but opens up a more tactical game.

Choose your weapon

Reach also mixes things up with pre-game loadouts. Selectable at the beginning of a match or when you respawn, loadouts let users pick a specific character type, such as recon snipers, medics or air assault. Although these classes come equipped with specific weapons, you can, of course, pick up new ones, but your chosen ability is specific to the character class.

These abilities are the same ones featured in the single player but, sadly, some are not as useful against real opponents. Armour lock is perhaps the most pointless. This move simply ‘locks’ your armour for a brief time, making you invulnerable. Sounds good, eh? Well, not really, as all your foe needs to do is wait for you to run out of energy and then pop you in the back of the head. In groups and team games, this may be useful occasionally, but it’s mostly a waste of time.

It’s safe to say that the jetpack, dash and cloak will be the most used abilities, along with the Elite’s dive roll, and even this early into the game’s life, people are already starting to come up with tactics involving these new moves.

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I should also mention some of the new weapons, which are also used extensively in single player. Most of the tried and tested Halo staples are back, even if some have been tweaked. The Battle Rifle, now the Designated Marksman Rifle, is a big change, and it’s now a powerful and effective headshot cannon in the right hands, and to many fans’ delight, the original Halo Magnum pistol is back, with damage potential restored.

New weapons include the UNSC grenade launcher, which can launch impact and detonated grenades, the Needler rifle, which is a longer range and more accurate needle gun, the Focus rifle, a deadlier version of the Sentinel beam, and the Covenant plasma grenade launcher, which can launch up to four homing grenades at once.

For the most part, these weapons and the abilities are all balanced very well, which is to be expected from Bungie, but a couple are totally overpowered in most situations. The aforementioned Covenant grenade launcher is one such culprit, and is just plain overkill a lot of the time, creating cheap and often infuriatingly easy kills.

Grand designs

As usual, the included maps are designed beautifully, not just visually, but with great attention to overall layout and composition. Each has a good range of arenas, choke points and hidden nooks and crannies, and although there are only a small handful of maps included, it’ll be a long time before people get bored.

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Even when you do, there’s the beefed up Forge mode to have a go at. This can be used to create whole new levels, meaning that the lack of included maps isn’t really an issue.

As well as creating new levels, you can also use the extensive custom game tools to create new game rules and types. You can play around with weapons and vehicle settings, player attributes and more, and can save rules for easy use later.

It’s an immense online package that I’ve really only touched on here, and it’s safe to say that people will be playing Reach online for a very, very long time.

On top of all of this gaming goodness is a visual sheen that really ups the ante. Whilst the game is clearly Halo, with much of the same design and look, the updated engine has made everything look better than ever before, with sections in the game that may not exactly make your jaw drop, but you’ll be impressed nonetheless.

And, with the return of Martin O’Donnell on the audio front, the music returns to epic, orchestral scores, which are excellently suited to the apocalyptic fall of the planet Reach.

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There’s no doubt about it, Halo: Reach is a superb title on almost every level. Even though the game is still firmly rooted in the tried and tested Halo formula, with little innovation or substantial original game play elements, it’s as solid as ever, and you’ll ease right back into the familiar action, relishing every moment.

There are few multiplayer-focused titles that can hope to compete with such a complete and well-rounded package, and whilst still not perfect, the single player is fittingly epic and always good fun.

Halo may have run its course for Bungie, and I have to admit I’m a little hesitant about the series’ future with another developer, but Reach has been well worth the wait. Put simply, go buy it.

5 stars

Halo: Reach is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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Rating:

5 out of 5