Every story has a beginning, and this is Halo’s. Taking place right before the start of Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo: Reach has a much darker and serious tone to it. The ultimate outcome of Reach is well known among people who follow the franchise outside of the games and while the battle for Reach is mentioned in some of the previous games. Ink on paper stories is where the outcome is addressed in greater detail, namely Eric Nylund’s The Fall of Reach. Developer Bungie Studios is not trying to hide the inevitable outcome of this planet, and everyone who plays it is given a reminder that Reach does indeed fall to attacks by the Covenant. Bungie delivers this to uncertain or unknowing players with an early dose of foreshadowing in the opening segment, showing the helmet of newest member to Noble Team, known only as Noble Six, laying in the dirt with combat damage on the visor and no sign of the Spartan which it belongs to. The cutscene then fades into a first person view of the protagonist holding the same helmet, pristine in their lap before placing it over their head.
With the outcome of the story already known by most, surprising and immersing the player becomes much more difficult. Bungie took on this challenge anyway, and did so with the quality and polish that they have built themselves a reputation for. The focus of this Halo game is put a lot more on humanity fighting a losing battle together and less on the one man army style from the previous games. For most of the ten beautifully detailed levels of the campaign, you fight alongside the five other members of Noble Team, the elite group of Spartans struggling to repel the Covenant’s attack on Reach. Equipment that was added in Halo 3—bubble shields, health regenerators, etc—is replaced with a different style of tools called armor abilities. These rechargeable game modifiers add a great deal of changes to the game. Jetpack, Sprint, and Armor Lock are just a few. While the campaign doesn’t focus on the use of these new abilities, they are introduced to the player and show them what to expect in multiplayer.
Another new aspect to the Halo universe is how Bungie was able to incorporate space combat into the mix. They dedicated almost an entire level to having the player destroy enemy ships, in orbit of the planet Reach. This level played exceptionally well for a first attempt at space dogfights in a Halo game. The player is put at the controls of a UNSC fighter having to defend a space station from an array of Covenant fighters. Not only does this level look absolutely gorgeous—with the stunning view of the planet and stunning space dust in the distance—but it also plays and feels like it belongs in the game, and not just a gimmick added for a bullet point on a list of things new. They also incorporated a muffled space sound to all noise that is heard, that gives the player a sense of full immersion in the setting.
Bungie’s audio in previous installments set a benchmark for console games using full orchestras for a soundtrack that is on par with a movie’s score; the music in Halo: Reach is no exception. Composer Martin O’Donnell outdid himself once again with dynamic pieces that are distinctly different from any of the previous games, yet still bring the player into the Halo universe with a sense of familiarity. There are different moments in the game where the music slowly builds from a basic melody to an epic score as the intensity increases, and does an excellent job at conveying additional emotions to the player that can’t be cued visually.
What is shown to the player visually is absolutely amazing. The amount of detail put into every texture, on every object is incredible and obviously pushing the Xbox 360 to its graphical limits, which is shown occasionally during heavy real-time rendered cut scenes that suffers an occasional frame rate dip. While playing the game there are literally no object or texture popups, which does well to keep players submerged in the virtual world. All of the gorgeous details from the story campaign is also carried over seamlessly to the multiplayer aspects of the game.
One of the goals Bungie was trying to achieve with Reach is the integration between all of the different game modes that the players can choose from. This is why the same Spartan you can customize for the multiplayer game types is carried over into the campaign mode. This gives the player a sense of identity that they can establish and maintain whenever they are playing any game within Reach. Another way that Bungie linked experiences is by incorporating all of the firefight maps and matchmaking maps within the campaign. They did it in such a way that once the player had completed a run at the campaign, they would instantly be able to correlate those levels in multiplayer. This is an excellent way to make the game feel more whole, and give an impression that the level designers for campaign and multiplayer worked hand-in-hand to create, not just a group of linked segmented experiences, but an entire realm that players could feel familiar and comfortable in through the duration of their stay.
Going above and beyond what they did with previous games, Bungie polished the Halo experience by giving near endless ways for players to enjoy themselves. They brought back the firefight mode from Halo 3: ODST—fighting off waves of Covenant with up to four players—but this time included piles of features and customization options. Players can determine which enemies spawn in any wave, player traits, enemy traits, and difficulty modifiers. Firefight also now has matchmaking options, so finding people to play with is never a challenge. New to firefight is the ability for players to fight against human controlled covenant. As the Covenant players control an Elite, with the sole objective being to wipe out the Spartans’ bank of lives. This plays on the new gameplay modes that are incorporated in Reach, putting the focus on Spartans VS Elites.
In Halo 2 and 3, Elites could be used as playable character models in multiplayer modes. These choices were purely for cosmetic reasons as both Spartans and Elites played exactly the same. In Reach however, Bungie decided to make the two species very different. The Elites are taller, faster, and have a different health system different from the Spartans. When a Spartan takes damage, first their shields are depleted and then a visible health bar is depleted. If the health bar is depleted it will recharge only to the closet third, requiring a health pack for full health restoration. For Elites, no health packs are needed because their health regenerates fully, and also have shields that regenerate faster than the shields of a Spartan. These changes make for drastic gameplay differences between the two species, and are why a player is only allowed to play as an Elite in some of the designated all Elite or Spartan VS Elite game types. Invasion for example places Elites and Spartans against each other where one team must defend certain areas while ultimately protecting a data core. While the game progresses new loadouts—different classes selected at each spawn with different weapon starts and armor abilities become available, along with vehicles. These game modes, while different from the typical style of multiplayer Halo matches, are a lot of fun and gives plenty of room for strategizing.
Traditional Halo multiplayer can still be found Reach, and it is the upmost refined and purest experience of the series. Not only are the multiplayer map environments rich and detailed, but the matchmaking system is the best that can be found on the console to date. It’s easy to find matches and quick to tell which of your friends are playing thanks to the active roster feature. Essentially everyone on your friends list who is playing Halo: Reach will appear underneath your gamertag and can easily be joined, or if they are already in a match you can queue up to join them as soon as their game is over. Players can choose from the competitive match playlists which include a vast array of slayer and objective game types. For the ultra-competitive games, players will look towards the arena, with an all new rating and ranking system, different from any other game. Players get a rating for every game they play. A daily rating is earned from the players three best rated games of a day. Once enough daily ratings are earned in a season (one month periods) players are placed into a division—steel, bronze, silver, gold or onyx.
Other features brought over from Halo 3 are the “Forge”, the Halo map editing service, and “Theater” modes. Theater mode is tweaked slightly to allow rewind features across all saved films, unlike in Halo 3 where it was limited to just multiplayer clips. Theater also now has easier options to save recent games and incorporated a tagging system to make it easier for players to find new content that they might be interested in. While Theater is essentially the same as in the previous iteration, Forge has gone through a drastic overhaul adding tons of various changes, tweaking the system to allow for easier and more advance maps. Methods that players would need to trick the system in previous version of Forge are now built in. Most notable is the different physics modes you can apply to each object, Fixed—the object stays right where you place it. Normal—the object reacts to other objects and gravity, staying where it ends after you release it. Phased—the object will pass through other objects and scenery staying exactly where you place it. These changes will greatly increase the variety of user created maps, and keep waves of new content coming to the multiplayer components of the game. Along with the editing mode, Bungie also created a sandbox map to fully take advantage of these tools called, “Forge World”. This is the largest map from any of the previous Halo games, with several different areas that players can explore and build upon. To prove the versatility of this map Bungie shipped four maps that they created on Forge World using only the tools that are available to the player. Of these maps, three are remakes of previous Halo Maps, including a version of Blood Gulch from Halo 1 and Ascension from Halo 2.
Halo: Reach is the definitive Halo game, however a stated by Bungie, this installment will be the last one we see for quite a while. The narrative in this game is very well done, with dialogue and characters that feel full bodied and are easily relatable. The story is easy to stay engaged with, and will keep you at the edge of your seat, even if you already know the ultimate outcome; you’ll want to complete the entire game as quickly as possible. For the average gamer, completing the campaign will take around nine hours on a moderate difficulty. Even after finishing the story, you will have endless multiplayer options that will be constantly updating and evolving as Bungie introduces new playlists and map variants into matchmaking. On top of everything, bugie.net will keep comprehensive stat tracking on their website as they’ve done with previous games. This is a game that many will continue to play for months to come. You will remember Reach.