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Halo: Reach Review

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

If it Sells, Don't Fix it

Halo: Reach Screenshot

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"?

Halo: Reach Screenshot

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.

Halo: Reach Screenshot

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. Rating: 7.0 out of 10. (Done. A whole review without an "exceeds its grasp" joke. Now to pat myself on the back.)

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.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360  
Developer(s): Bungie  
Publisher: Microsoft  
Series: Halo  
Genre(s): Shooting   Online/Multiplayer  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Friendly AI

I've not played Reach but one of my favourite things in Halo is driving around in a warthog with an AI on the gauss cannon and another in the passenger seat (ideally with a rocket launcher or fuel rod cannon), so I find the comment about the AI rendering the Warthog useless to be a little worrying. Is Reach noticeably worse in that respect compared to Halo 3 or is it just largely unchanged?

Fair and not fair by turns

I can definitely agree with you on some of the criticisms, the AI driving is unusable on anything higher than Normal, and the AI gunning is infuriatingly 'off'. The one stratagem that does work is giving a marine a rocket launcher or fuel rod and parking them in the shotgun seat, then they are stunningly accurate and fire quite willingly. Of course, this isn't always possible to do, but it can help with some tough bits.

As for the plot criticisms, the "free fall" bit was accomplished with a backpack labeled in large print letters as a "RE-ENTRY KIT." The shield + armor combo has been described as specifically capable of this feat in the past and the character who does so this time starts with health bar damage, it clearly was nothing to do lightly even with all those considerations in mind. At the same time, "one headshot killed by the sniper" has been true since Halo 2 so what exactly is the inconsistency? And it's not a secret that the UNSC has space fighter planes, it's a secret that there's a launch base for said planes in the nearby mountains. This secret being kept because of the large amount of REBEL ACTIVITY in the sector mentioned at the beginning of the game. A super expensive space fighter launching facility would be a tasty target for attention whoring terrorists, no? And the "finale" is after the credits, no love for the excellent match of gameplay to theme there? You'd think that's the sort of storytelling Gamecritics would like...

I think in terms of the difficulty, you might just be really good at shooters. Legendary is very tough but more fair than a CoD title, and Heroic is tougher than 3 and ODST's version of the same name. The Elites and new arsenals out there will make short work of anything but strategic and careful play.

Next up, weapon balance. No UNSC weapon compares to the DMR? So... killing an enemy in a single shot (sniper rifle) is inferior to killing them in 7 shots from closer range? Or having the ability to kill vehicles or instantly defeat dangerous enemies (Spartan laser, grenade launcher, rocket launcher)? And who would say no to the shotgun as a sidearm? The pistol is obviously meant as a spawn placeholder for the DMR, so holding that against it seems strange. With all those weapons held aside, you're basically saying that the Human arsenal is poop because the assault rifle is weak. :|

As for the Covenant arsenal, the plasma pistol remains the ESSENTIAL tool for utilizing the DMR's potential, so not mentioning it in your analysis is odd. The plasma rifle and repeater remain weak utility weapons, true so you're correct there. The Needle Rifle is SLIGHTLY worse than the DMR, but gains a huge benefit in the fact that inaccurate fire (aka, not a headshot) instantly kills the opponent after the shields pop. It also suffers less from bloom (which you strangely didn't even mention in an offhand fashion). The Needler continues its streak of being surprisingly useful in campaign and mostly for laughs in multiplayer. The concussion rifle is like a slightly worse brute shot, but that still makes it an almost-power weapon. The fuel rod is the poor man's rocket launcher and the plasma cannon is the poor man's Spartan laser, but both of these things are nothing to sneeze at for their combat role unless you have the comparable kit there next to you to pick up. And finally, the new Covenant beam sniper is a little bit underpowered. I wouldn't be surprised to see it receive a buff come a balancing patch.

The abbreviated version of all that exhaustive detail is that the DMR is certainly safe to carry around at all times (campaign & multiplayer) but that doesn't make it the best by any means. If you disagree, play Hemorrhage and ignore the sniper rifles or try Reflection with no eye towards getting your hands on the rocket/sword/sniper. They're called power weapons for a reason...

I don't focus so much on

I don't focus so much on story issues, I focus more on mechanic issues, pacing issues with the stuff you get,ect,ect.

Halo 1 PC is still the pinnacle of the Halo franchise for me, HAllo 2+ added more things but the core mechanics took a back seat. I know AI is tricky and what not but not making it better to not offend the wooly masses is a bad direction the indutry has gone in... Bioshock is a better example of it....

I was hoping you'd be the

I was hoping you'd be the one to review this game Daniel, and as expected your overall thoughts and score are exactly what I would have hoped for. 7/10 is exactly the same score I would have given the game.

That said, I do disagree on a couple of points with you - Firstly, I find it amusing how you criticise previous Halo games story-lines (ODST in particular, which I actually found to be one of Bungie's better narrative and unique offerings) due to certain levels of humour and other things. For me, that makes Halo have a certain character and soul, and gives the characters involved something to shine for, where-as in Reach the Spartans are completely devoid of interest. As I said on the Halo Reach poll, even Uwe Boll would quite easily make a better story for the game. The Onion website review actually points out a simple but fair scene from the original Halo, where the Master Chief has a short conversion with Cortana; that single, short, conversation alone displays why Bungie's previous games are ultimately better narratives. Reach is clichéd, overly serious, and quite embarrassing on the whole.

Aside from that, I completely agree with you about everything. I also salute you for pointing out auto-aim as a serious flaw; online players constantly like to state how it is their skill which equals better gameplay, but the sad reality is that auto-aim makes the game both laughable and frustrating to both play and take seriously, either offline or online. And yes, Covenant weapons are now close to useless due to this, which is a shame since I like the design of those weapons better than the human ones.

So overall well done on your review, and thanks for posting it.

Hoping for an intelligent

Hoping for an intelligent rebuttal to the white-washed scores of other sites, I came here. Unfortunately, I didn't see anyhting to get behind.

While I'd love to pick apart all of the illogical arguments, I'll try and address your more salient points.

First, AI. Yes, Reach has some stellarly useless AI. But compared to who? Gears of War, where allies either sit impotently behind cover and twittle their thumbs, or are continuously in need of resuscitation because they try to help? Call of Duty, where your allies are either on a rail or completely useless? And which of these actually has an AI with Dynamic driving to compare Reach's to?

Second, DMR. My rebuttal? Halo 2 and 3's BR (or Halo 1 sniper pistol). Each game has pretty much the same thing, except armor abilities actually make a difference if you're caught in the open.

Third, the ending. It seems a mite hypocritical to have the title "If it sells, don't fix it," then criticizing them for trying something new.

Lastly, difficulty. For me, the Heroic campaign was just as difficult (probably more, actually) as Halo 3 Legendary. I don't know what yardstick you use to determine difficulty, but I think you need to calibrate it.

This is the most honest review of Halo: Reach In Your Wallet yet

I posted your review as a thread at the Giantbomb forums.

http://www.giantbomb.com/halo-reach/61-26786/the-most-honest-review-of-halo-reach-yet/35-453811/#19

Hahaha, look at those fanboys cry!

I agree with Anonymous here

I agree with Anonymous here and find it strange that the Plasma Pistol's effectiveness in taking down Elites in particular wasn't mentioned; a charged shot followed by a few blasts from the DMR is certainly more elegant and economical than the missing dual-wielding or simply pummeling them with the DMR (which wastes valuable rounds). Similarly a shotgun, and not the DMR, is always the optimal choice for dealing with Hunters, who seem to be more plentiful in Reach than in past Halos. The DMR is obviously the weapon of choice in this game for many "typical" situations (like the AR was in Halo 3), but that hardly renders all other weapons useless or the game balance broken. Also, is there a reason why dual-wielding is so missed, save for the fact that the plasma rifle is now slightly less appealing? This mechanic always felt a bit superfluous in a series where the well-chosen use of grenades is so essential. In other words, I'm not sure why this is considered an "embarrassing" archaism, rather than the removal of an unnecessary encrustation.

In general, I think part of the problem is that some of the overwrought rhetoric you resort to (e.g. "baffling introduction of shocking new flaws," "almost game-breaking exploit," "the Covenant weapons...have been essentially broken," "Then there's the game's difficulty level, which is something of a disaster. There's no scale to speak of...," "In a game absolutely packed with embarrassing relics," etc. ) tends to preclude more careful and thorough argumentation, undermining what otherwise might be persuasive criticism. Unfortunately, this tends to position your own criticism at the same level of discourse as those larger magazines and sites which are content to (often uncritically) heap overwrought accolades on the next big thing.

Similarly, I'm not sure I agree with the utter absence of scale in difficulty levels. Certainly, Easy and Normal can both be breezed through in this game by veteran players (but there is still a discernible difference between the two for non-vets), but Heroic in Reach is noticeably more difficult than Normal in this game, as well as Heroic in past games. Of course Reach doesn't have a level like Cortana from Halo 3, which I find a complete bitch on Heroic, but this strikes me as being more of a virtue than a weakness. On Heroic there don't seem to be any battles that feel needlessly difficult or unfair, but each one still requires thought and consideration. Even Grunts (Grunts!) in the early sections of Exodus demand attention and caution. Also, Elites with Fuel Rod guns are brutal. If you found them too easy on Heroic then you're much, much, much better at Halo than I am.

I do totally agree with your complaints about the friendly AI; it is pretty obvious that all of the AI work went into the Covenant. And I admit to initially feeling a similar disappointment with the game's climactic moments (You mean I cant' take down those Scarabs? No Warthog run for old-times sake?), but as the above poster pointed out, Reach throughout its campaign - but particularly in its final moments - does a better job of wedding game situation/mechanics with thematic content than I would have expected from a big, dumb, over-marketed FPS. It's not exactly Braid, but I do think its attempts to confront what the smart kids call "ludonarrative dissonance" are worth noting. Does an analogous Warthog run here make the same thematic sense as a last stand against wave after wave of invading Covenant? I'm totally open to a counter- argument here, but I just don't see it myself.

Also, for the life of me I can't fully parse your line about a weakness in previous games in the series and a strength in this one: "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." The phrasing is ambiguous; read literally it would imply that the soldiers couldn't possibly be quoting from films made in the future ("from five hundred before they were done"). As the series' fiction is set in the distant future (26th or 27th century or thereabouts) this would imply that the films they are illicitly quoting from are 31st or 32nd century films. Of course this doesn't make sense, as how would you know that they are illicitly quoting from said films, save for access to a time machine? A more charitable reading (although one, alas, not supported by your phrasing) is that it is unlikely that soldiers centuries in the future would still be quoting from 20th/21st century films, five hundred years after those films were first made. This may or may not be the case - we of course still quote from that touchstone of late 16th/early 17th century popular culture, William Shakespeare - but it might be worthwhile to further clarify your meaning here and at other moments in your piece.

Just to clarify somethings

Just to clarify somethings you completely misunderstood and therefore should probably remove from the review if integrity is of any importance:

The fact that the UNSC has space ships is not a secret. The UNSC clearly use spaceships to blow up the covenant corvette before the space mission even happens.

The secret is the sabre programme and the existence of the sabre base on Reach. The ship you fly is different to the other ones we've seen flying over head in the other Halo games. It's new. That's why it's a secret.

Second, you do not survive a jump from outer space all the way down to earth. In the cutscene you quite clearly have a pack on your back which says 'RE-ENTRY UNIT' and in the cutscene when you're back on earth this pack is clearly lying on the floor.

Just Another Halo

It's a shame to see the franchise that "started it all" for FPSs on consoles (not really though) devolve into just another franchise that produces just another installment.

Bungie's script and storytelling is just as bland as ever, single-player experience just as dull, and as per usual the focus is almost exclusively on the multi-player...

Which really hasn't been changed much. Beyond cosmetics and customization, you might as well keep your 50 bucks and just play Halo 3, it's nearly identical anyway, changes that I would expect as a free "patch" for a game instead become another released title. And Halo 3's multiplayer was and still is awesome.

Frankly, I don't understand how this has become acceptable in the gaming community, tweaking multi-player should be nothing more than a free patch, and if significant changes are made, but not destroying core gameplay, then it is called an expansion pack; still not a new release.

"the focus is almost

"the focus is almost exclusively on the multiplayer...which hasn't really changed much."

...And what exactly did you want them to do?

+New Weapons
+New Damage System
+New Vehicles
+New Maps
+New Game Modes
+New Item System
+New Control Options
+Firefight
+Improved Forge
+Improved Graphics
+Improved Matchmaking

A) I don't think they could have realistically patched this into Halo 3. B) What would you have considered an "acceptable" amount of change?

Level design?

How exactly are the level designs "creative"? They're linear, almost uniformly shaped like looping spires (either outdoor hills or indoor floors) to climb, and filled with graphics stripped from previous Halo games. As with ODST, several sections of the levels are absolutely vacuous and serve no point other than to give the illusion that thought went into them.

My thoughts while playing through this tedious excuse for a video game: "Bungie, you are officially the laziest design team on the planet, and your general apathy for the men and women whose hard-earned money pay your salaries is evident in everything you do (or in this case, don't). Way to ride a single set of design principles all the way to the bank. Go work at Bioware; they could probably use more folks who do nothing all day but rework stale old material into new ways to charge $60.00."

Halo: Reach

I'm having a great time with this game. Started my Legendary run tonight and it is quite a bit more difficult than I expected. Bottom Line: It's Halo, you either like it or you don't. For those who like it, it's every bit as fun as it ever was, and then some. That's really all I care about.

I'm somewhat disappointed

I'm somewhat disappointed you didn't mention the post-credits ending in the actual review. It completely caught me by surprise my first playthrough, and I think it's my personal high point of the game. I can understand not wanting to give details to avoid spoilers (which is much appreciated), but I would've liked some mention of your thoughts on it.

I do disagree with some of your points. For one, while I liked dual-wielding in past Halo games, I'm fine with its exclusion from Reach. According to Bungie, they purposefully excluded dual-wielding to simplify some things to counterbalance some complexities they added to the gameplay (like armor abilities). Considering they also made weapons like the human pistol and Plasma Pistol more powerful, I think it worked well, and I don't really view it as a step backwards (though I feel the Plasma Rifle got the short end of the stick). Also, I'll agree with others in that you must be better at Halo than I am, because I found Heroic to be quite challenging.

In response to your conclusion, my guess is that Bungie doesn't view what you call flaws as flaws. I'd agree with you that the friendly A.I. needs work (usual driving problems aside, I've had more problems with it than past Halo games), but on things like the Covenant vehicle design, the Spartans' jump, and the return to one gun at a time, I don't feel any of those are detriments to the game.

Whatever my feelings on the review, though, I 100% agree with you on your deaf/hard of hearing comments. I have no idea why Bungie doesn't provide some kind of gameplay subtitling. The Modern Warfare games did a good job of subtitling necessary dialogue; I don't know why Bungie can't at least do that as well. I personally don't struggle to understand what's going on, since I don't have any hearing problems, but it seems that not including subtitles just excludes a portion of your fanbase and doesn't make sense.

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