Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Bungie’s run on the Halo franchise goes out with a bang.
I’ll be honest, despite being a big fan of Halo: Combat Evolved in particular, and essentially all of the Bungie-developed Halo games (Halo Wars came courtesy of Microsoft Game Studios), I had a serious case of Halo fatigue. I told myself I was going to pass on Halo: Reach. It wasn’t a game I needed to play. But whether due to the relentless marketing campaign, or all of the favorable to downright glowing reviews that have come out in the last two weeks, something drew me across the line I had drawn in the sand. Whatever it was, I’m incredibly glad I broke down and decided to pick up Bungie’s latest (and final) offering in the Halo series of games. Halo: Reach is the best game since Halo: Combat Evolved, and may even challenge it’s predecessor as best game Bungie has developed. Read on for my full review.
First, let me offer a bit more perspective on why I was initially dismissive of Halo: Reach. First and foremost, when it was originally announced, seeing the team of Spartans that would serve as the main characters of the game had me convinced that Bungie was going to model a Halo game after Valve’s highly successful Left 4 Dead series. In other words, I thought Halo: Reach was going to be a game intended and designed as a cooperative multiplayer game. There are times when I enjoy some good coop, but by and large I prefer a solid solo gaming experience. Could Halo: Reach really be a fun experience if played alone?
The second reason for my disinterest was the fact that this was going to be a prequel. In the chronology of the Halo universe, the story of Halo: Reach actually takes place prior to the events of the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved. Likely George Lucas is to blame for my immediate disdain and contempt anytime the word prequel is uttered, but regardless, the challenge (if not outright problem) with a prequel is that you know the ending before you begin. That makes it all the more difficult to construct an interesting and compelling narrative. Was Bungie up to the task? Sure, but I still had my doubts.
And then I saw this:
Wow. Sidenote: From all of the live action Halo commercials that have come out, I’m convinced that a Halo movie could totally, utterly kick ass. Why can’t Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp get this moving again? Damn.
Getting back on point, after playing through the main campaign of Halo: Reach, I can say that not only did Bungie assuage my doubts, they eliminated those doubts with the equivalent of a 90 minute shiatsu massage. To reiterate, my chief concerns were that Halo: Reach might not be satisfying in single-player, and that its status as a prequel might result in a narrative made more poor for the fact. However, Bungie uses the structure of Noble Team (the team of Spartans your character joins at the beginning of the game) as the cornerstone for the whole narrative. The story of Halo: Reach centers on this team, and the fall of Reach is depicted as seen through their battle-hardened eyes.
With Noble Team, Bungie creates a group of vibrant characters, truly interesting individuals that I quickly became endeared with. I enjoyed their interactions and their banter (both in-game and in cut scenes). While your character, referred to only as “Six” (the sixth member of Noble Team), isn’t as talkative as the soldiers of Gears of War, for example, he/she definitely has a voice and uses it frequently in dialogue with his/her teammates. No stoically silent (or is it silently stoic?) Master Chief for this game. And if it wasn’t clear from the dual pronouns two sentences ago, another very cool (and long past due) feature is the ability to play as a female Spartan.
The story of the battle for Reach, and its ultimate fall to the Covenant, is one that could be told in the style of a History Channel documentary on WWII. While an interesting thought, it wouldn’t make for a very fun game (maybe why I avoided Halo Wars). Instead, Bungie ignores much of the global conflict to tell the story of Noble Team, not unlike HBO’s excellent miniseries Band of Brothers, which focused on the experiences of the men of E company. It’s a smart move, and a great way to get players invested in the proceedings when, again, they know how it’s all going to end.
Additionally, without venturing into spoiler territory, the story of Halo: Reach, and Noble Team in particular, actually accomplishes what a prequel should. The events tie into the exploits of Master Chief in later games, in some pretty surprising ways, and in at least one case alters how you look at the events of later games. And not in a “shit the Star Wars prequels are crap” kind of way.
Moving beyond the story, Halo: Reach manages to take the already solid FPS gameplay of previous Halo games to the next level. There are new and varied weapons to use, and even pre-existing weapons that make a return are overhauled to feel more powerful and more responsive. Environments have received a never-before-seen (in a Halo game) attention to detail. Reach is a planet full of wildlife and non-military personnel, and you encounter and interact with them on several occasions. While missions and levels are still for the most part linear in design, they’ve been opened up dramatically to allow for greater freedom in how you accomplish your objectives and engage the enemy. And those enemies? The AI has also received upgrades, making battles more unpredictable and more challenging than in any previous Halo game. It all combines for a thoroughly satisfying experience.
If there’s one disappointing element to the campaign of Halo: Reach (I haven’t had a chance to try out the multiplayer portion, though I’m sure it’s up to snuff), it’s the co-op. I know I said I’m not much into co-op gaming, but I’ve played through most of the game with a friend of mine, and it’s been something of a let-down that instead of being able to take control of different members of Noble Team, in co-op you both simply play as Noble Six, with cut scenes tailored to your customized character. The story is still treating it like there’s only one of you, even when there’s two playing. Seems to me Bungie had a chance to do something a little more daring here, by giving different members of Noble Team different traits to allow for different styles of play and different tactics. This isn’t a problem or even a major weakness, more just a missed opportunity.
The Halo franchise will most likely continue, but if this was to be Bungie’s last Halo game, they couldn’t have ended on a higher note. Microsoft will be hard pressed to match what Bungie has accomplished.