Friday, 24 September 2010

Video Game Review: Halo - Reach

You know, Bungie made a couple of other games before they hit the big time. There was Marathon, Myth and Oni, three relatively distinct chapters in the studio's development, each representative of a different direction, a new way to play. In retrospect, none of Bungie's earlier efforts stand out particularly; look at them as learning experiences for a company finding its feet, however, low-stakes tables on which a ragtag gang of players learned the game, and their significance skyrockets. Without them, Halo: Combat Evolved would not have been what it was, and what it was - what it is - altered the landscape of gaming forever. Combat Evolved wasn't the first console-friendly FPS, but the repercussions of its stellar success are still being felt today. Had Bungie not knocked it out the park with that first turnabout in Master Chief's SPARTAN armour, would the likes of Gears of War and Call of Duty even exist?

Perhaps I'm giving Halo too much credit. Perhaps they would do... but mark my words: had they lacked the foundation stones Bungie set in place to build upon, they'd be very, very different games.

Nevertheless, it's been ten years since Combat Evolved changed things up - ten years - and in that time, the evolution of gaming hasn't simply halted in anticipation of Bungie's next innovation. To paraphrase Solid Snake, that font of gravelly wisdom, "gaming... has changed." Or was that Kratos? In any event, the Halo franchise has idled along for near enough a decade now, with sequels and spin-offs and cross-media razzmatazz wherever you look. And it's been fun. It has: with success on their side, Bungie has shaped a universe that some believe to be this generation's Star Wars equivalent (though I'd debate that point). They've brought Halo's idiosyncratic gameplay and graphics up to date, and they've managed to do so without radically diverging from the formula which makes the One Franchise to Rule Them All so very distinctive.

But it's finally come time for Bungie to put Halo to bed. And not a moment too soon, given that the inimitable Master Chief has been absent for two full games, his tale wrapped up in a pretty little bow fashioned from the cat-gut innards of Covenant grunts. Appropriately, then, Halo: Reach harks back to a time before the earth-shattering events of the trilogy proper. In fact, so the lede line goes: from the beginning, you know how it ends. For the uninitiated, it ends... badly. With millions dead, the UNSC defeated, and the sleek alien invaders looking for all intents and purposes as if they've won the battle and the war. If you please, see Halo: The Fall of Reach, Eric Nylund's not inconspicuously-named tie-in novel, for more details on the chronology.

In fact, if you've read The Fall of Reach, you'll find yourself in familiar territory here. Nylund's surprisingly competent Starship Troopers-esque narrative doesn't infringe upon the events of Reach so much as enrich them. As Noble Six, new recruit to a team of so many SPARTANs tasked as ever with the apparently impossible, you'll visit a handful of locations referenced by the expanded canon, see firsthand how certain events pivotal to the overarching Halo narrative came about, not to mention recognise a few familiar face - among them SPARTAN program mastermind Dr. Halsey, Cortana, John 117's onboard AI, and... well. That'd be telling, wouldn't it?

You couldn't call Halo: Reach a surprising game. There's not a lot about it that's new, all told. The campaign is your usual eight to ten hours of fraught battles against the same old assortment of enemies and awesome set-pieces bolstered by brilliant, if now lamentably familiar design. You can expect to spend that amount of time again (and again, and again) with the myriad multiplayer modes on offer, now complete a few new variants and at last, matchmaking for Firefight, Halo's own Horde mode. Surely I don't need to tell you the gameplay in either single player or online is sound; frenetic as ever and so utterly seamless, in fact, that it could only have come from a decade's iterative process. Come down right to it, a legion of hopefuls and pretenders have done little to diminish the fact that there's nothing quite like Halo.

And Reach is Halo to a T. It looks like Halo; it sounds like Halo; it plays like Halo. Indeed, Reach is a truer successor to the trilogy in spirit and in impact than the (nevertheless very fine) aberration of last holiday's Halo 3: ODST. Now if Halo's left you wanting in the past, Reach isn't going to adjust your attitude in the slightest. What we have here is more of the same - except, and here's the thing: it's the same, but better. Better in every sense. To begin with, the single-player campaign is diverse and expansive. Moreover, Reach boasts a sense of place and time rarely felt in Halo before... and I don't just mean you're on Planet Reach before its inevitable fall; of course you are, but where before Bungie would have been content to plop you into battlefields with little to no explanation of why you're there and how you got there, in Reach you're chauffeured from one breathtaking location to the next while Noble Six's commander outlines your charge. The storytelling is otherwise more sophisticated and coherent than it's ever been. Yes, you know how it ends, but getting there is a truly satisfying feat; emotional, even.

And boy, is the presentation in Reach ever stunning. It looks... fantastic. The vistas are incredible, the future tech sleek and authentic. As ever, the frame rate is solid, but it's particularly impressive this time out, with so many enemies in the exacting arenas you'll forge through at once, and so much detail to each of their individual character models, as all the while blinding explosions ring out and great UNSC carriers dwarf the sun in the sky. Nor is Marty O'Donnell's score a rehash of classic Halo themes. By turns bombastic and haunting, the composer here achieves new heights with an original soundtrack that, taken in tandem with the events of the campaign, will give you chills in all the right ways.

Add to that the addition of daily and weekly challenges to an already tremendous array of multiplayer modes, whereby you earn credits by completing certain actions to unlock a multitude of armour pieces and effects with which to customise your SPARTAN soldier (both online and in the single-player), and... well. If this cracking package doesn't tide you over till Bungie reveal via Activision their next original IP, you're a hard sell indeed. Reach might be more of the same, but Halo has never looked, sounded or played better. A fitting swan song, then, for a developer now defined by a single property, a property which, whatever its faults, has come to represent not just a species of experience, but a touchstone for all other modern shooters to be measured against.


  1. I'll admit it sounds and looks fantastic, and if I had a 360, I'd likely not hesitate on picking it up. I thoroughly enjoyed Halo 3 and, ignoring the player base, both it and Halo 2 are more defining experiences than anything else I've played.

    I can remember playing Halo 2 after school, I can remember flying through the air on Halo 3 (Multiplayer, that map that's effectively two towers with the sort of "air catapults" to fling you across). I remember bits of the campaign and how impressive Halo 3 looked to me.

    Nothing I've experienced since then has really impacted me in the same way Halo or Unreal Tournament has.

    If I get a chance to play this, I think I'd leap at it.

  2. You mean the man-cannons! Yeah, they were loads of fun. There's a couple in Reach, too - only in multiplayer though, I think. But that's where the shelf-life is anyway.

    Absolutely, Dwagginz - you get yourself a 360 or steal someone else's and play this game, quick smart! :)

  3. It's something I've considered, I just don't have the funds. If I can get a job then I might see what I can do ;)

  4. Great review Niall, agree with you on all points \m/