HIGH Flying over New Alexandria, watching a losing battle and feeling powerless to help.
LOW Without dual guns fighting Elites is once again a mind-numbing chore.
WTF "A silent testament to the never-give-up, never-think-things-out spirit of the UNSC."
Halo: Reach, the fifth first-person shooter (FPS) in the Halo series, takes place at the outset of the Human/Covenant war that raged over the course of the last four Halo titles before being resolved when a big thing exploded two games ago. This is the second title in a row to attempt to provide a little context and depth to Halo's traditionally sparse plot, and while it's more effective at doing so than ODST's dull wandering around an empty city, Bungie's stubborn refusal to repair fundamental gameplay problems—and its baffling introduction of shocking new flaws—keeps the game from reaching the heights that it aspires to.
Things start off promisingly enough with an opening sequence cribbed from Aliens, in which a group of generically gruff Spartans (the player controls the largely mute "new guy on the team") are faced with a surprise attack by the Covenant on the peaceful planet of Reach. It quickly becomes apparent that the Covenant have arrived in force, and the player's team doesn't have a prayer of winning the day.
While the player knows all this going in (it's a prequel, after all), the game's story manages to get a good amount of mileage by exploring the increasingly suicidal schemes that the Spartans come up with to win even a small victory against their overwhelming opposition. The plot is helped a great deal by the game's serious tone—gone are the soldiers quoting movies from five hundred years before they were done. Even the Grunts have finally stopped speaking English, so their high-pitched squeals play as creepily alienating rather than broadly comic.
It's not all good, however.
While attempting to tell a bigger story with more characters, the developers forgot to ensure that it actually all made sense. In a completely militarized future why is the fact that the UNSC—which regularly flies across the galaxy and drops soldiers from orbit into trouble spots—has outer-space fightercraft considered top secret? How are Spartans literally able to survive re-entry into a planet's atmosphere and the subsequent 30-mile drop onto a mountain range one moment, then be felled by a single sniper's bullet the next? Why can't the entire UNSC come up with a battle plan better than "send more jeeps to drive in a straight line at the scarabs"?
Bungie seems to believe that as long as the sorts of things that happen in other war epics happen in their game they'll have a coherent plot, but sadly it just doesn't work that way. Even the game's most potentially affecting sequence—fighting an escort action as civilians are evacuated from a huge futuristic city—is hampered by the fact that the civilians have no AI to speak of, and run headlong into the line of fire every chance they get. It's hard to care about saving people who take no interest whatsoever in their own self-preservation.
On the subject of AI, Reach continues Bungie's habit of proving that bad help is worse than no help at all by once again saddling the player with some of the most inept sidekicks since Halo 3. Not only has the AI's inability to drive a jeep for more than thirty seconds without rolling it or ineptitude at shooting enemies more than twenty feet away rendered the mighty Warthog useless in the single player game, but Bungie has doubled-down on the pointless sidekick front by adding a feature that allows Noble 6 (the playable Spartan) to recruit soldiers and have them follow him around. It's a nice idea, but since most levels give the player a far more useful helper in the form of the entirely immortal other members of Noble team, it's an addition that improves the game in no measurable way.
Reach isn't just hampered by AI problems, though—the game has serious gameplay balance issues in both the difficulty levels and issues with the weapons.
Reach offers a wide variety of weapons, but a series of tweaks to the arsenal have rendered most of it ineffectual at best, useless at worst. Halo's pervasive auto-aim has always been something of a mixed bag; players love the bad-ass feeling they get by pulling off headshots effortlessly, but the inclusion of a super-accurate weapon has combined with that feature to form an almost game-breaking exploit. Put simply, there's almost never a reason to use a weapon other than the precision rifle—it both heavily damages shields and allows for easy headshots. No other UNSC weapon is effective in comparison, and the Covenant weapons (which either strip shields or do massive damage to unshielded enemies—but never both) have been essentially broken by the fact that two-fisted gunplay has been removed from the game.
It's telling that across the dozens and dozens of multiplayer matches I played while researching this article, around 95 percent of the time players used the precision rifle. When you can't tempt someone with a sniper rifle or missile launcher, there's something wrong with your weapon balance.
Then there's the game's difficulty level, which is something of a disaster. There's no scale to speak of—the game is either far too easy (the first three difficulty levels) or borderline impossible (Legendary). I think I managed to find a sweet spot by going online and playing Legendary with another person. It was challenging but not punishingly so, but even that evaporated once I tried the levels with three and four players. It feels like Bungie wasn't especially concerned with the single-player experience—the game only shines for one player in the three vehicle-intensive levels. I don't know how Bungie managed it, but no matter how hard the levels might have been, the time I spent piloting a tank, helicopter, and fighter plane were the game's absolute high points... Which makes this as good a place as any to repeat my call for Bungie to just give in and make the car-combat game they're so obviously best-suited to.
It's really a pity that the difficulty is so wonky because I found the level design this time around to be stellar. While it's true that most of them are arranged in the standard linear "narrow pathways that lead to combat arenas" the environments themselves are so attractively rendered and creatively designed that I didn't mind the formula. Also, the near-complete lack of backtracking was a breath of fresh air (especially after ODST—the D stood for "déjà vu," in case you didn't know).
The only letdown is the game's finale, which was something of a surprise to me. Bungie is usually so good at creating climactic setpieces, usually involving some action driving. Reach just throws another gunfight in a contained area (that doubles as a multiplayer or Firefight map, as all the noteworthy combat arenas do) at the player, which feels like a letdown after everything that led up to it—especially when the previous level ended with a far more dramatic and engaging battle.
Multiplayer is largely unchanged and, at this point, so codified as a definitive multiplayer experience that it may be beyond criticism.
I couldn't find a dud map among the new offerings, and a couple of favorites from Halo 3 make a return appearance. The only real problem with the multiplayer is the precision rifle situation I mentioned above—but even that odd "restriction" didn't prove to be much of an obstacle. While everyone using the same gun may seem dull in theory, in practice I found that it proved to be quite an equalizer. With everyone sharing the same loadout I found that matches turned more on skill and technique as opposed who got the lucky spawn closest to a powerful weapon.
Reach's most improved multiplayer feature is "Firefight," the mode introduced in ODST that has a team of four players battling wave after wave of AI enemies, racking up points for stylish play as they go. Last time the mode was a bit of a loser, taking up to an hour to play a single round of what should have been a simple riff on the ubiquitous "survival mode." This time around Firefight has been completely overhauled, both in letting the players choose from a wide assortment of game sub-types (All rockets! All grunts! All snipers!) and shortening the mode to create faster, more intense battles.
The big change to Firefight mode, like the toning down of the Grunts, demonstrates something peculiar about Bungie's design philosophy—they're capable of recognizing flaws in their game, but largely uninterested in doing anything about them.
In a game absolutely packed with embarrassing relics of the first Halo—silly Covenant vehicle design, the Spartans' ridiculous looking low-G jump existing alongside a modern physics engine, the return to one gun at a time—Bungie chose to fix only a multiplayer game mode. That they made-over Firefight mode so effectively proves that the developers have the self-awareness necessary to learn from their mistakes. It's just that most of the time, they don't.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 20 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times) and 10 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, violence. Despite the fact that the game is rated "M," it's a little more appropriate for your younger (but still supervised) teens than comparable titles. The violence is fairly clean and fantastic enough that they shouldn't find it too upsetting, and the story treats war and the sacrifice it necessitates with enough gravitas that it might actually serve as an instructive tool for morally-developing teens. Spoiler alert: Unlike most other war-based FPSs, things don't end well for the player this time around.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Did you do something to Bungie? Like park too close to them outside of a mall and ding their cars when you opened your door? Because they really, really seem to have a problem with you. Cutscenes are subtitled, but all communication between characters in-game is not, which is a pity because that dialogue is what informs the player where they're supposed to go next and what they're supposed to do when they get there. Add to this the fact that enemies have a variety of one-hit-kill attacks (grenades, suicide, swords, six kinds of projectiles) which offer distinctive sounds—but nothing else—to warn the player that immediate action is required to avoid immediate+1 death.
Simply put, without sound, the campaign is all but unplayable on anything but the easiest difficulty levels. I'm not saying that every game needs Half-Life's comprehensive subtitles, but this one absolutely demanded them, and Bungie's failure to do anything but the absolute minimum has made Reach totally inaccessible to the hearing-impaired.