Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Halo Reach Review
For fanatical Xbox 360 gamers, the release of Halo: Reach positively hums with significance. As the first of this year's blockbusting games to break cover, it symbolically kicks off the Christmas games rush. But it also marks the end of the Halo franchise as we know it – developer Bungie has signed a deal with Activision, and will make non-Halo branded games in the future (Microsoft is bound to hand future Haloes to another developer, but that could easily prove to be a poisoned chalice).
Bungie is bowing out of the first-person shoot-em-up franchise it created with an air not of regret or ruefulness but sheer triumph. Halo: Reach is easily the best Halo game ever – which means it is also one of the best games ever, full stop. In terms of look and feel, it is comfortingly familiar but despite that, stops have been pulled out: for example, Bungie created an entire new game engine for Reach and, while that familiar, slightly washed-out colour palette and distinctive art direction remain intact, everything looks sharper and crisper, and feels even slicker than ever.
Story-wise, Halo: Reach makes its predecessors feel almost amateurish. It's a prequel to the first Halo, so Master Chief hasn't yet come into play. Instead, you play Noble Six, the last (and nameless) Spartan to join the elite Noble Team. Dispatched on a seemingly innocent mission on Reach, the last bastion of the UNSC's defences before Earth, Noble Team uncovers a Covenant invasion. Cue a titanic struggle for the planet which we know is ultimately doomed, but that doesn't make it any less epic.
Those who availed themselves of the multiplayer beta will be conversant with Halo: Reach's main gameplay innovation – armour upgrades, which give you short-lived abilities such as a jetpack, active camouflage and a holographic facsimile of yourself. These also feature heavily in the single-player game, introduced more or less individually, and turn out to be a clever means of rendering Halo's single-player gameplay much more diverse than it has been in the past. There are stealth episodes, and others where you have to cross big gaps using your jetpack.
Bungie's engine upgrade also extended to the artificial intelligence, bringing about some monstrously frenetic set-pieces in which you really have to develop a tactical plan (and, as ever, it's vital to work out where to find the required weaponry). Sometimes, taking cover and timing are paramount; other times, you'll have to find a nice sniping spot, or you might have to take down turrets before they cause havoc. And the presence in certain levels of civilians fleeing the Covenant attacks (all of whom are very pleased to see a rare Spartan) ratchets up the emotional intensity.
There's a lengthy portion set in space just beyond Reach's atmosphere, which includes some very serviceable space-shooting, plus some fearsomely intense shooting on foot in a Covenant spaceship, and another episode in which you pilot a Falcon around the skyscraper-tops of a city under attack. The big battle scenes – always one of Halo's strong points – are more impressive than ever to behold, and as some of your Noble Team-mates sacrifice themselves for the cause, Halo: Reach starts to pack an emotional punch unheard-of in its predecessors.
Online, Halo: Reach is of course immaculate. The armour upgrades add an extra dimension without compromising the headily addictive nature of the otherwise familiar gameplay. The flexibility, in terms of game modes, is almost bewildering, and the Firefight mode, which supports up to four people playing co-operatively, particularly stands out. Similar to Gears of War's Horde, it gives you extraordinary fine control over waves of incoming Covenant attackers which must be survived, even letting you define the type of enemy per wave and your weapons load-out.
Halo: Reach, simply, is Bungie's masterwork, and if you own an Xbox 360, you'd be an idiot not to buy a copy – even if you're not a fan of first-person shooters, it will still make you marvel at just how good a game can look and feel. And it throws down a massive gauntlet as part of what will be an intriguing sub-text this Christmas: will it be the game everyone is playing on Xbox Live, or will Call of Duty: Black Ops have the quality to usurp it online?