Monday, September 27, 2010

Xbox 360 review: Halo: Reach

Roughly three years after the conclusion of Master Chief's story in Halo 3, Bungie has released Halo: Reach, the final Halo title to be developed by the company. For those not familiar with the game, Halo: Reach is a prequel to the original Halo. Players are given control of Noble Six, a SPARTAN-III and the last surviving member of his team, as he is transferred to Noble Team to fight the Covenant in the final days before the planet Reach was glassed.

*[NOTE: In the images below, my Noble Six is wearing recon armor. The armor will differ depending on how you customize your Noble Six character.]

The campaign plays out much like a greatest hits with each mission feeling unique to Halo: Reach, but carrying a sense of familiarity. ‘Tip of the Spear’ is reminiscent of Halo 3’s ‘Tsavo Highway’ and ‘The Ark’, and the latter portion of ‘Long Night of Solace’ akin to the original Halo’s ‘The Truth and Reconciliation’. Even Halo 3: ODST gets a bit of a nod in the mission ‘Exodus’. Players are granted more freedom in how they go about completing certain missions, but at the same time the game requires them to be more strategic than in previous titles. The normal and easy difficulties provide a similar challenge as in Halo 3, though the Heroic and Legendary difficulties will truly challenge players without being unfair or downright aggravating.

The members of Noble Team each have a distinct personality, and the only one left the least fleshed out is Noble Six. This is likely because Bungie wanted to let players customize their experience and leave Noble Six’s personality up to interpretation. Still, he/she shows more emotion than Master Chief did in pretty much any of the other Halo games and it’s nice to see that Bungie mixed things up a bit. As for the rest of Noble team, Carter - the team’s leader – come across as simply following orders at first, but it becomes apparent later on in the story that he does care for the safety of his team members despite the fact that isn’t always the best at expressing this. Kat is perhaps the most valuable member of the team as specializes in hacking and data retrieval, and is more than capable of holding her own against covenant forces. Emile is cynical and seems to have the most difficult time getting along with others, though his skills in close-quarters combat prove invaluable. Jun is a bit of a chatterbox but one of the most entertaining characters in Halo: Reach, as he tends to keep a positive light on things while remaining focused on his mission. He is the team’s designated Sniper and can provide the team cover from a Falcon transport circling the area or from the ground. Jorge is built like a tank and is the only SPARTAN-II among the group, having seen years of service. He is well-versed in different languages and is by far the compassionate member of Noble Team.

Dr. Catherine Halsey, a pivotal character in the Halo novels, plays a significant role in the events that unfold throughout Halo: Reach. A number of guest appearances occur as well, tying the story into the core Halo storyline. There are a few things left unanswered to players, such as how the Covenant were able to discover Reach and land on the planet undetected. The novel The Fall of Reach could clear things like this up for players, but at the same time they shouldn’t have to look this sort of thing up to understand what’s going on in the game. That said, it’s relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. The story is genuinely gripping and emotional at many points, making it the best campaign in a Halo game, as well as one of the best in any FPS title.

The game’s graphics are stunning and it seems that Bungie went a slightly different route with the art style in Reach than they did in Halo 3. Halo 3’s characters were portrayed in a style that was semi-realistic but had a hint of cel-shading. In Halo: Reach, everything looks realistic, from the character models to the UNSC ships to the planets on Reach’s horizon. Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salavatori have released yet another fantastic soundtrack to accompany the gameplay, with variations on a number of familiar Halo themes.

Aside from the campaign mode, players are given quite a few reasons to stick with the game for some time to come, most notably the multiplayer, which the Halo franchise has largely been popularized by. New to Reach’s multiplayer is the inclusion of loadouts, which vary depending on gametype. These grant players use of two weapons upon spawning (one weapon in rare cases) as well as equipment (which are no longer scattered around the maps as they were in Halo 3). Players are still able to swap out weapons with those on any given map in-game, and can switch up their loadout prior to respawning. The new assassinations are entertaining but players might want to think about their surroundings before sneaking up and stabbing an enemy, as the animated assassination leaves them exposed for a brief few seconds. While there is little to complain about in terms of the variety of weapons at players’ disposal, I find it likely that Bungie will release an update in the near future to adjust the headshot accuracies, which (at present) seem to be based more on luck than skill once a player’s shields have been brought down.

The number of maps included on the disk is a bit of a disappointment, especially considering that nearly half of the maps are straightforward remakes from Halo 2. The ability to veto gametypes in the matchmaking pregame lobby returns, though this time around players are given the option to vote from three gametypes or choose ‘none of the above’ (upon the latter choice, the game will select three new gametypes that players must then choose from). The exp. System from Halo 3 - wherein players would earn single exp. Points per game won - has been exchanged for a progression system in which players earn more points based on performance, completing challenges, and earning commendations, but will still earn points simply for participating in a match. These points can then be exchanged to unlock armor permutations and Firefight voices.

Returning from Halo 3: ODST is Firefight mode, in which waves of enemies are sent at players. Players can tackle Firefight in three ways. Traditional Firefight is accessible through the main menu and allows players to take on the Covenant by themselves, allowing them to customize loadouts, difficulty level, the number of enemy waves players will be facing, and the enemy/player attributes. Firefight matchmaking puts four players in a game and requires them to take out the Covenant forces before a certain time limit runs out (generally ten minutes). Gametypes include traditional Firefight, Sniperfight, Rocketfight, and Generator Defense (in which players prevent Covenant forces from destroying a number of generators). Finally, Score Attack pits one player against waves of Covenant forces (much like non-matchmaking Firefight) and ranks the endgame score on a community leaderboard.

Forge mode is back from Halo 3 and has seen a major overhaul in user-friendly aspects. No longer is flipping pieces about a hassle, thanks to the inclusion of degree turns. Players can fine-tune the specific location of Forge pieces by zooming in, and can even set the object to ‘fixed’ or ‘phased’, leaving the object hanging in midair or allowing it to phase into another object respectively. Buildings can be changed in color for designation to the different teams. The majority of Forging will take place in Forge World, an enormous area built by Bungie with certain areas set up as the beginning environment of a map, but ultimately the final outcome is limited only by players’ imaginations.

Halo: Reach is the culmination of many of the best elements of previous titles in the series. Some could say the game returns to the roots of Halo, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate as there are plenty of inclusions from Halo 2, Halo 3, and even Halo 3: ODST that make the gameplay so fluid. With past Halo titles, I felt that they were somewhat overrated and hyped too much. But Reach is the complete package, providing tons of playability, superb graphical and musical achievements, and one of the best FPS campaigns around. In short, Halo: Reach is a title that belongs in the library of any Xbox 360 owner.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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