October 8, 2010

Game Review: Halo Reach

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Halo Reach is both the beginning and the end of an era. Nearly ten years ago, Halo Combat Evolved launched with the original Xbox. For better or for worse, it changed gaming forever by single-handedly carrying the Xbox through it’s launch and altering the very core of the FPS genre. Halo 2 added online support and helped to make Live what it is today. Halo has always been an influential franchise and Bungie does it again with Reach. Some changes are subtle and some are grand, but the guys at Bungie really gave this one their all. It is, after all, their final Halo title before they move on to their new ten-year deal with Activision. Halo is far from dead, but this is the last time Bungie will be behind it. You have to wonder whether Microsoft will put as much love and care into the franchise as Bungie has, or if they’ll milk it till the udders are raw. We can only hope for the former.

The gameplay of Halo Reah is largely unchanged from previous games. This is a good thing. We like the way Halo plays and we want it to stay that way. Though the core gameplay doesn’t change, there are some significant tweaks to mix things up. Personally, I like these tweaks. They’re an expansion of everything that made previous Halo titles a blast to play. Some people–those who only buy the game to waste their life in competitive online matches–think it’s nerffed, but casual players and Halo fans who like to have good ‘ol fashion fun will appreciate the changes.

On the gameplay side, we’ve got armor abilities. These are basically what equipment should have been like. It just took the guys at Bungie a game to fine tune exactly what they were trying to accomplish. Basically, your character is given an ability (that can be swapped like a weapon in campaign and some multi maps or changed via loadout- more on that later) that can be used and reused by a tap of a button. These range from sprint to dodge to jetpack to bubble shield. They need to be recharged, however, so you don’t spam them. Not only do they add great gameplay variety, but more depth. What armor ability does this situation call for? Should I switch to this or that? Armor abilities have saved my life on many, many occasions. As a sidenote, armor abilities have changed the default control scheme and it may be confusing to Halo veterans. I suggest switching to the “Recon” layout, which is basically Halo 3 controls except swap grenade is mapped to “x” and armor abilities are mapped to the left bumper.
With armor abilities come loadouts in multiplayer. When you start the match, you’ll be asked to pick a set of weapons and an armor ability and you can switch your loadout after you die. So it’s basically like Call of Duty (as much as I hate to compare them). That’s really all there is to loadouts. They simply allow you to change the weapons and equipment you spawn with. You can make your own in multiplayer option menus if you choose.

Assassinations are flashy, instant kill melee attacks performed by holding down the melee button. There's a ton in the game that differ depending on your proximity and whether your playing as a Spartan or Elite.  They don't really add anything positive or negative to the mix besides some fancy animation. Sure, they may leave you vulnerable, but the player is aware ahead of time what they're getting into since assassinations are optional.
Grunts no longer speak English! You can shoot their methane tanks as a consolation prize, though.

The guns are a nice mix of old and new. This is probably the best batch of new guns Bungie has included in a Halo game. For the most part, they are balanced and fun to use- with the exception of the plasma launcher that shoots up to four heat seeking sticky grenades at once. That is overpowered beyond belief. Classic guns return with makeovers as well. The pistol is awesome now, and the DMR is much better than the battle rifle in my opinion. Probably my favorite new weapon is the needle rifle, replacing the old carbine. It's not only more fun to use, but once you take out your opponent's shields three landed shots in a row will supercombine and kill your enemy in a pink explosion.

Bungie added reticule bloom this time around, which means your shots get less accurate if you pump the trigger like a maniac. For the most part, I don’t see that it makes much of a difference, especially when it comes to single shot weapons. It does add some strategy with guns like the assault rifle, however, because simply holding down the trigger greatly reduces the accuracy of the gun. Of course, some people think it breaks the game. Guess who those people are.

Finally with gameplay changes, Bungie has once again included fall damage and health packs. I was actually still used to this from ODST. It gives the game a more classic feel like the original as far as I’m concerned. The only time I’m ever annoyed by fall damage is when using grav lifts. They actually propel you so far up that if you don’t hit your target exactly, you’ll fall and take damage. I’ve died from man cannons before, too. Hopefully this is just a technical issue that will be patched because it definitely shouldn’t happen. As for the health packs, they also add some strategy. Although you have your shields to fall back on just like in every game, if you don’t replenish your health from time to time you’ll probably get owned when a big fight breaks out. 
Speaking of big fights brings me to my next point: scale. This game has some absolutely massive battles in the campaign. Thanks to the new engine, the game now has some huge-scale battles with way more enemies on screen than you’ll find in previous Halo games. You’re often fighting these big battles with allies which finally, finally gives the impression you’re a part of something massive. Dogfights and ground battles will rage in the distance as you and your marines fight off hordes of Covenant and their vehicles. Rarely do you feel isolated or alone, yet the game maintains its depressing tone throughout. There are some points where you’ll go it alone and feel truly helpless in the grand scheme of things.

Do not screw with these guys!
That’s when the game really gets tough. The game is challenging all around. It’s the hardest Halo game by a mile. By a thousand miles! But it’s challenging in a good way. It’s challenging because the AI is so vastly improved it’s not even funny. In fact, it’s some of the best AI I’ve ever seen. Elites are downright cunning, Hunters are brutal, and even Grunts may give you a run for your money when they attack in squads. Every enemy is harder to kill. Well, except Brutes. Yes, there are Brutes but they’re kind of pushovers here. Most of them are unshielded and can easily be killed with a melee attack from their own gun. It’s only when Brutes are in packs with majors and chieftains that they really get tough. Curiously, they won’t berserk that I can tell, and they aren’t as fun to fight as they were in Halo 2. They do look more intimidating than the last time we saw them, though. Luckily, they’re not that abundant and Elites defiantly take center stage. It seemed like every time I'd fight a bunch of Brutes and own them, Elites would appear as if they were frustrated with the Brutes incompetence and proceed showed them how it's done.

So on your own, it gets pretty brutal, but huge firefights are also plenty tough. Thankfully, the friendly AI is also way superior. Your Spartan pals are swift. Like really swift. Sometimes, I’d run and hide while my buddy took care of the invading fleets of Covenant. Even the marines are smart enough to stay alive for extended periods of time. I was surprised by how long some of my simple human allies held out. Being surrounded by allies makes for a significantly different feeling at times from the established Halo formula. I liked it. When you're alone it can actually feel isolating, providing another differing experience from what we're used to. An invincible superhero you are not. And guess what? As far as I could tell, computer characters have learned how to drive since Halo 3. There was a segment when I was on a mongoose with a rocket launcher while my teammate deftly navigated through chaos to the next section of the level. It was something that I wasn’t expecting ever to see in a Halo game and it really took me by surprise.

There’s several of these really “wow” moments in Reach where it becomes evident the development team when back to their old idea book and stuffed in a bunch of things they’ve always wanted to do. The result breaks up the gameplay nicely, always keeping things interesting, fresh, and unexpected. And for the first time in a Halo game I didn’t get lost once. The level design is really tight this time around and I always knew what exactly I should be doing and where I should be going. Everything about the gameplay is really fine-tuned. It’s really the final evolution of Bungie’s “30 seconds of fun.”

If there's one point to take issue with about the campaign, it's the save points. You will die a lot and the save points can be wonky, often saving at a weird time and respawning you with a disadvantage. This happened more times than I would have liked. Again, this can probably be patched and it won't ruin the experience by any means, but it is a bit irritating. Personally, when it happened I took it as a challenge, but I don't think it was something Bungie was intending.

Bungie strayed away from the traditional formula in a lot of ways with Reach. The game takes place on the planet Reach and chronicles the adventures of a team of Spartans, Noble Team, as they try to defend Reach against the Covenant onslaught. You play Noble 6, a replacement for a fallen Spartan, who joins Noble just as things get messy. In many ways ODST was a preview of what to expect in Reach. Your team is fully voiced and, with the exception of yourself and Emile, you actually get to see behind the mask. Yes, the characters are kind of clich├ęd, but that's not necessarily bad. It's kind of like ODST 2.0 in a good way. Unlike 2 and 3, the game only takes place in one location and like ODST, there's no Flood. Yet, Bungie does a fantastic job of never letting things get boring. In a pre-Flood world, the Covenant becomes more fun to fight, and although you stay on Reach the entirety of the game, the environments and missions are varied enough to keep things interesting.

Unlike ODST, however, Noble Team is actually interesting. Characters are more fleshed out and when they die (you already know Reach falls, so is that really a spoiler?) you may find yourself feeling sad about it in a Sergeant Johnson kind of way. Yes, characters will die, but exactly how may surprise you. It's all in the fairly solid writing and unfolding of the story. It's not the grand sort of space opera Halo 3 was. It's more intimate while still maintaining that sense that something big is transpiring. Ultimately, the game is about survival. It's about how to fight a losing battle. What do we do when we know we're going to lose? Answer: you try to protect what's most important. The story takes an interesting turn towards the end. For a while, you'll wonder why Bungie bothered to tell this tale when Noble team seems just to be doing odd jobs. When it clicks into place, though, it's fantastic. The ending is easily the series' best. It was absolutely perfect for me. The game is sad, yet you know all is not lost. Definitely be sure to sit through the credits. Not only are they the most visually and auditorily interesting, but there's quite a treat afterwards.

This poor guy doesn't realize what a massive battle he's in for.
Despite what people may say or think, Reach runs on an all new engine. And it really shows. This game looks lovely. It's especially apparent in the cutscenes, which are (and always have been) powered by the in-game engine. The difference in character faces alone is staggering. It's really the little details that make the game much more visually pleasing. There are a lot of little details. Everything is more detailed. The overall color scheme is darker to reflect the darker tone of the game, but it's in no way Halo: Gears of War Edition. There's still all the crazy purple and red and Covenant colors, though I did notice they seemed to be darker shades. Replacing the Forerunner architecture is Reach architecture. The city of New Alexandria, for example, is definitely not what you think of when you think "Halo," yet somehow manages to blend in seamlessly. 

A strange point: all of the game's multiplayer maps, both competitive and firefight, are taken from the campaign (with the exception of Forge World). For firefight they obviously work very well. But for competitive, I found them to be better suited to the campaign than to multiplayer a lot of the time. I think they actually designed the campaign with that in mind for whatever reason, but it kind of backfired for me as I found the design weird for that type of play. Also, they're major campaign spoilers. I wouldn't do anything else until I finish the campaign if I were you.

The audio, as expected, is top notch. The music and everything else is just beautifully done. Voice acting is on par with other Halo games, though everybody seems to have some sort of an accent for some reason. Jorge sounds Australian, for example, despite that he is from Reach which has a strong Hungarian background, speaks Hungarian, and has a Spanish spelling to his name. Not that this retracts from the experience, it's just that they seem to really be forcing the whole "ethnic diversity" thing. Sound effects were completely re-recorded for this game and they're great. I mean, it won't win any awards for sound or anything, but it's all well done as you probably expect.

A marine from Halo 3 (left) compared to a marine from Reach (right). Note the difference in detail.

The soundtrack is another hit. The majority of it is all new stuff, which I really appreciate after hearing the same remixed and rearranged tracks for six years. Old themes do appear, however, and they appear for a reason. As great as the soundtrack is, I still don't think it's Marty's best work. ODST still holds top honors for me. Reach is close, though, and it's great to have an all new theme for once. It's like playing through Halo for the first time, except that you're able to recognize bits and pieces and attribute them to other events in the universe. 

And the game is rife with those references. There's a lot here for fans of the franchise. Reach is like the ultimate fan service going away gift. Only one piece is missing, at least that I know of so far. As far as the fiction and the game's place in the cannon, it really makes you think. Only problem is that newcomers or those that don't immerse themselves in the extended fiction may have no idea what is going on sometimes.

There is a ton to do in Reach. There's the campaign, the multiplayer, firefight, and Forge. Each of those has near bottomless options for customization. Multiplayer has a bunch of new gametypes like headhunter, stockpile, and invasion. Each gametype has subgametypes and you can make your own custom versions, of course. There's also the arena for competitive types, which is meant to keep those crazies out of matchmaking for those of us who just want to have some fun. I believe the arena has you working toward some sort of monthly ranking. As you can probably gather, I'm not much of a competitive multiplayer guy so this will give you a much more comprehensive explanation of the arena than I can. Anyway, there's a ton of options on the competitive front. 

For co-op, you can tackle the campaign or firefight. This time around, firefight has as many options as your typical multiplayer match. There's even a bunch of default gametypes included (Gruntpocalypse anyone?) as well as matchmaking. There's also matchmaking for the campaign being included in an upcoming patch. Bungie went through a lot of trouble making sure you never get bored on the multiplayer front.

Prepare for rape!
There's only eight multiplayer maps included, but that is easily balanced out by Forge World. Forge has undergone a major overhaul since Halo 3. While you can still Forge on the included Bungie-developed maps, the huge, blank canvas of Forge World is where the engine really shines. You can easily make full maps anywhere in the bounds of Forge World for others to download. There's over 150 pieces to build with and new mechanics let you "fix" pieces or "phase" them into other pieces as you see fit . I've seen some truly impressive maps made with this and spent a good number of hours crafting one myself. The system is simple enough for anyone to use, yet mastering it provides the benefit of infinite maps. Imagination really is the limit here. Bungie provides players with six Forge World maps of their own creation (some of which are remakes), but I can imagine when they start picking community maps to include in playlists things will never get old. The only downside of Forge World is that, as big as the canvas is, the environments are fairly limited. I'd love, for example, to make a snow map. Also, the only building pieces are Forerunner-based which only makes for one type of possible architecture. The game doesn't currently support alternate options, but knowing Bungie they may be added down the line. I only wonder what kind of DLC they're going to offer this time around with Forge World being what it is and with all the maps from the campaign.

To reward players for all their, well, playing, Bungie has included a new credits system. You get credits for literally everything you do in the game. You'll rank up once you've earned a certain total number of credits and you can use those credits to unlock things (no, you down't downrank when you spend them). This is nice, except that the stuff you buy isn't really all that important. It's mostly armor, actually. I would have preferred if you could unlock concept art or developer commentary or something, especially since this is Bungie's last Halo game. I do like that you can customize your soldier, however, as this customization is used across all game modes. So when you play the campaign, the Noble 6 in your cutscenes will look different from mine. Nice touch. Bungie also includes weekly and daily challenges that'll net you bonus credits. It's all just for the hell of it, really, because the credits don't mean much, but people love to gloat so when your armor is epic, your rank is high, and number of challenges you've complete is in the 100's, you command a sort of respect. That is, of course, until you start a match and get pwned, because none of these things denote skill (though the skill matching system is still in place here).

Our old friend Mr. Halo Ring returns one last time on Forge World.

Halo Reach is not the best Halo game. It cannot outdo what has been done by the original. It is, for me, the second best. Reach is the ultimate evolution of the Halo franchise that comes full force at you with a lot of content and a lot of memorable, unexpected moments. And when the campaign's through, there's plenty to keep you entertained for perhaps years to come. It's by far the most challenging Halo game and arguably the most rewarding. In this respect I can compare it only to Super Mario Galaxy 2. It's challenging without being frustrating. Playing by myself on Heroic, it took me 15 hours and 20 minutes to complete and I died 126 times. It was totally worth it. There's one totally unscripted encounter I had that I think sums up the experience of the game nicely: I had cleared out a room of all but two Elites. One was dual wielding plasma pistols and the other held a Fuel Rod Cannon. I had died many times here, as you will throughout the game, and wondered if I had the strength to continue. I just decided to go in full force with a shotgun blasted the dual wielder to death. My shields down and my health low, I sought cover as I tried to seek out my final enemy. I popped out in front of him and, jumping over his head, shot him in the back. He came back around for me ready to fire his cannon and I shot him again in the chest, depleting his shields. He dropped his Fuel Rod Cannon, threw his hands into the air and let out a terrifying roar. Catching me totally off guard, he pulled a sword out of nowhere and charged at me. Holy shit! Somehow I avoided his swing and my cunning foe finally fell to the might of my shotgun. My eyes were wide, my heart was pounding, and my breathing was heavy. I stared in disbelief at the screen. Had that really just happened? Yes it had. And it was awesome!

1 comment:

  1. Really good review, very helpfull and thorough. Also thanks for the heads up about the multiplayer maps being spoilers :D