We all know how Reach will end. It is written. Bungie's involvement in the Halo franchise will terminate with its very beginning: the doomed defence of humanity's major shipyard and birthplace of the Spartan program. Six brave Spartans will fight... and suffer... and fail... and yet by providing the most complete Halo experience to date, Halo reach is easily one of the finest games on the console.
The singleplayer campaign broadly sticks to Halo's classic routine: large sandbox arenas interconnected by labyrinthine corridors and mid-range encounters. However, the new sense of immense scale and overwhelming odds bring an entirely . The skies teem with enormous aerial battles. New warthog rockets shred the battlefield. The air thrums with gratuitous particle effects, fountains of luminous blood and ridiculous visual feedback. Battles are bigger, more brutal and infinitely more intense than ever before... and Bungie has succeeded in creating the feeling of being in the middle of a global war rather than disconnected little skirmishes. It's cinematic whilst promoting player choice. Visceral doesn't quite cover it.
The campaign is made all the more enjoyable by the new gear, enemies and AI. The new weapons (including the Covenant concussion launcher and handy warthog rocket batteries) provide more combat options than ever before- and the armour abilities are a neat take on deployable equipment. They're not quite powerful enough to dominate a battlefield, but clever use of a decoy hologram to lure out snipers or a sprint to reach an important weapon can easily turn a certain defeat into a narrow survival.
However, the Elites and new Skirmishers steal the show. The Sangheili have always been the tip of the Covenant's spear- and they're now some of the smartest videogame combatants out there. They'll merrily use cover, shamelessly flank unwary players and fall back when injured, all whilst providing a stiff challenge even when engaged 1 on 1. The brand new Skirmishers are a hardy breed of Jackal that can leap around the battlefield to snipe from tall buildings or attack Spartans from behind, meaning that the battlefield is now extremely dynamic and vertical (and incredibly dangerous).
Unfortunately the same level of AI doesn't extend to the rest of Noble team. The other Spartans frequently have trouble mounting vehicles and occasionally display some weak pathfinding... and I'm afraid to say that their characterisation and soundbites are surprisingly cliched and weak. Still, friendly AI and has never been Bungie's strong suit, and whilst Noble team are a selection of two dimensional cardboard cutouts, you'll still be glad to have them around.
Oddly, most of the missions focus on infantry engagements- so until the last few levels, there aren't the sweeping armour column levels and freeform tank-into-warthog-onto-ghost levels that the first three games offered us with gleeful abandon. On the other hand, the space flight sections are some of the most breathtaking and impressive parts of the Halo universe so far, with slick controls and a truly haunting (lack of) atmosphere.
In terms of presentation, Reach is as rich and subtle as you'd expect from the Halo franchise. Each individual texture or effect may not be particularly jawdropping by itself; but when taken as a whole package, the graphics are ambiently beautiful. Reach is a uniquely dark and deep-hued planet, demonstrating sumptuous art design that enhances the somber nature of the storyline. A few graphical quirks certainly make themselves known from time to time, including a little slowdown, the odd bit of noticeable texture pop-in and some weird physics engine glitches (especially if corpses meet the water). Considering the quality of the rest of the ensemble, you won't judge it too harshly. If you notice at all.
At the time of writing, Halo Reach's multiplayer features haven't been fully enabled... so both the matchmaking and netcode aren't quite up to par yet. However, I'm delighted to report that it's the best of the series without question even at this early stage. The action feels classic, tight and familar, but the new armour abilities and gametypes inject a breath of fresh air into the formula. If you want it to. Classic slayer, new invasion modes and even the ranked arena battles that require players to participate in several matches per day in order to be ranked into seasonal divisions allow fans of all preferences and abilities to get involved. The competitive multiplayer suite is absolutely comprehensive and watertight.
Firefight and competitive firefight mode with customisable skulls allows the cooperative mode to live up its full potential. The new forge world is ridiculously deep and will provide aftermarket player content for years to come. We'll provide you with a more detailed joint rundown of the multiplayer soon enough... because one person can barely scratch the surface even after hours of play... but suffice to say, it's absolutely some of the finest I've ever experienced on a console.
This may all seem impressive enough, but the Credits system holistically unites both the solo campaign and deathmatch into a single, glorious experience. Killing enemies, completing objectives/challenges and earning medals will reward you with bountiful credits that can be spent on cosmetic armour upgrades in the Armoury. A fairly large (though not as expansive as you might imagine) set of buyable armour allows you to tweak your appearance depending on rank. Saving up for a particular helmet modification or bizarre armour effect (including clouds of flies or a hilarious confetti death animation) is an incredibly addictive new feature that will keep players glued to each and every game mode in pursuit of extra capital.
The fact that the custom armour loadout persists both online and in the singleplayer story allows players to fully invest in Noble 6... put simply, it's you behind the visor. This level of immersion was touched upon by ODST, but when players have the opportunity to fully read themselves into a character, the entire experience seems more personal and powerful as a result.
Personal and powerful. Two words that sum up Halo Reach perfectly. The double sting of sadness and hope that the tragic campaign conjures up is slightly reminiscent of our feelings towards Bungie's departure from the Halo universe. There's no doubt that newcomer 343 Industries has a lot to prove... but Reach will tide us over for many months yet.
- Excellent campaign with slick AI, fun new toys and some sombre moments
- Balanced multiplayer that's destined for greatness
- Firefight, multiplayer and campaign credits add near-infinite replayability
- Campaign takes a while to get up to (serious) speed
- Cliched and frequently annoying teammates with quirky AI
- Occasional graphical and physics-based glitches
The Short Version: Reach is a fitting end to Bungie's involvement with the Halo franchise. An impeccable singleplayer campaign gives us the closure that we deserve along with some massive thrills, and the comprehensive multiplayer suite guarantees Reach is going to be sitting next to your Xbox 360 for months to come. And in the tray for the forseeable future.