For more than a decade, Bungie has been making "Halo" games. The franchise started out as an exciting Mac release and has since evolved into something much, much larger. But Bungie's time with the Spartans and Covenant comes to a close with the release of "Halo: Reach," as they'll be moving on to a brand new, decade-spanning, multi-platform franchise. The question remains, did they have enough left in the "Halo" tank to end on a bang, or is "Halo: Reach" more of a wet fizzle?
The events of the "Halo: Reach" campaign take place immediately before the very first "Halo" game. The planet of Reach, a human military stronghold and research hub, is attacked by the Covenant, and will eventually fall. This downfall is revealed the instant the game begins, but a quick flashback jumps you to just before things start to go south. You know the ending, but it's really all about the journey, isn't it?
In addition to the campaign, there's a metric ton of multiplayer content, ranging from deathmatch to racing to capture the flag to zombie-style infection. If I went ahead and listed out all of the multiplayer modes in "Halo: Reach," we'd be here all day. Suffice it to say, there's a lot.
On the cooperative side, in addition to playing the campaign with friends, players can participate in Firefight. First seen in "Halo 3: ODST," Firefight has up to four players battling increasingly difficult waves of AI enemies. "Halo: Reach" introduces new customization features and modes to Firefight, allowing players the ability to tweak any of the game's settings.
A Wider Campaign
There's a mission in the original "Halo" that remains the most recognizable. It was a massive, sandbox style mission set on an island, and players were given a wide berth to choose how they wanted to approach each objective. Later "Halo" games would have two or three of these sandbox-style missions, with the rest of the levels falling mostly into corridor shooting. In "Halo: Reach," the vast majority of the game's missions are set on sprawling outdoor maps, with multiple objectives and multiple points of entry. This is where "Halo" shines. Massive battles, incredible vistas and the satisfying "shhh" of a stuck plasma grenade.
What's remarkable about the new Firefight is that there's now no reason you should feel obligated to play adversarial multiplayer. If you suck at headshots and dislike getting pounded by screechy 12 year-olds, hopping into a Firefight match with your friends is a great way to pass the time. Everyone's just working for the good of the team, and even if you're the weakest link, you can still contribute.
And because Firefight is fully customizable, there are plenty of different variants to keep things fresh. For example, Rocketfight has all players starting with rocket launchers and unlimited ammo.
If you're in the mood for some light competition, Firefight Versus is an absolute blast. The 2 vs. 2 mode has teams taking turns playing as Spartans and Elites. As the Spartans, players can score points by killing random AI baddies, while the Elites are just trying to whittle down the Spartan life count. Not to be missed.
Plenty of Competition
The full weight of the adversarial portion of "Halo: Reach" is kind of overwhelming. Every mode and feature that has every appeared in a "Halo" game is in there, and players have a wealth of options to choose from, even in ranked matches. Don't enjoy the new loadout system (which allows you to select your gun and starting ability when you spawn)? Classic Slayer brings the game back to its roots.
New modes have been added, as well. Headhunter is an "American Gladiators"-style dash for points, while Invasion is an objective-based battle between Spartans and Covenant, with players battling over points spread across massive maps.
Customization on Multiple Fronts
So I've already discussed mode customization, where you can select and change parameters to create homebrew modes to play with friends. There are two additional customization aspects which make "Reach" even bigger.
First up, armor customization. Playing any mode in "Halo: Reach," be it adversarial, Firefight, campaign or even a custom mode, will earn you credits. These credits will increase your rank and can actually be spent in the Armory. Here you'll buy different armor pieces and helmets to further customize your Spartan. Some of the more expensive customization options cause your armor to radiate effects like lightning. The customizations are solely cosmetic, there's no gameplay value to them, but it does give you something to work for beyond a better kill-death ratio.
The other new customization element I wanted to mention is Forge, which returns from "Halo 3" with big, big improvements. Bungie has gone and created the most robust console-based level builder ever made, and it's remarkably easy to use. Within five minutes I managed to build a 50 foot tall rock monster and could have very easily set spawn points and had a Slayer match in and around his feet within 10. Unlike the previous version of Forge, there are very few limitations to what you can pull off, and there are already extremely faithful remakes to classic "Halo" maps like Hang 'Em High up on the File Share. There's literally no end to the amount of stuff that can be created with the new Forge, and even if you're not a creator yourself, you can easily reap creativity of others.
It's Still "Halo"
It must be said that while I think this is a remarkable, this is still "Halo" we're talking about, and if you hate "Halo," you'll hate "Halo: Reach." The game greatly improves but doesn't dramatically innovate the formula, making for a remarkably polished but familiar experience.
Visually Still Behind The Curve
Although there are some incredibly cool-looking scenes in "Halo: Reach," it's hard to ignore that the game's engine is still nowhere near the likes of franchises like "Gears of War" or "Uncharted." There's just a general lack of detail, especially when it comes to interiors, in "Halo: Reach" that makes it feel not exactly cutting edge. Never ugly, certainly, but one would hope that Bungie is planning on starting a new engine from scratch for their next franchise.
I'll be blunt: "Halo: Reach" is the best "Halo" game ever made. It's also the most customizable game I've ever played and offers tremendous value for your $60 investment. Unless you've got serious "Halo" hatred, there's no reason you shouldn't add this to your collection.