Halo: Reach is finally here. After a slight detour with Halo 3: ODST and Ensemble Studios' Halo Wars, the last chapter in Bungie's epic saga has arrived. Well, to be more precise, the last of Bungie's chapter has arrived. After five releases and nearly nine years, the universe has now passed on to new hands. But before they left Master Chief and his fans, the company pulled out all the stops to send their creation off with a bang.
To be fair, Reach isn't my favorite of the series – that distinction, nostalgia laden as it is, lies with the first – but there is no denying that it is the complete package. All of the additions and tweaks from over the years, from the movie-capturing and -editing features to the Firefight mode, have returned, and they have never been in finer form. For fans of the series, this really is the ultimate Halo experience.
Let me pull back for a second. Reach isn't just the newest game in the series, nor is it just Bungie's last hoorah, but a pivotal point in the Halo universe. The Fall of Reach is a dramatic moment in the lore, and has been with the series since the beginning. In fact, this is a prequel to the original trilogy, and its ending doubles as a sort of time warp as it ends in 2010 what the original began in 2001. It's almost a surreal experience to see the Pillar of Autumn and realize that it is the same ship you were on when you first fired up your original Xbox. But getting up to that point involves going through the Covenant invasion forces in order to save key personnel, retrieve sensitive data, and destroy whatever might be left behind – the actions of an army in flight.
If there is one knock against Reach, it's that the story isn't told as effectively as it could be. In fact, this has been a problem with the Halo titles since the beginning. While the lore is rich, getting much of it has depended on external sources, primarily the novels and extra items that come with the limited edition releases. The company that told such a stirring tale in Myth has never been able to really nail the kind of dramatic delivery that its supplemental material has. Reach, until the last act, is no different. Aside from some elements not making much sense, such as the Covenant being able to somehow sneak onto the planet, the buildup and eventual impact of forces feels light against the eerie and mournful tones and character comments. The cities are also pristinely destroyed in that, while there's clear damage, everything is destroyed just so – it looks less like an invasion than a pillar being placed down here, a screen broken there. It isn't until the last act that things really kick into high gear, with the devastation of the Covenant's relentless onslaught fully realized. But the how's and why's are largely left up to you to find out for yourself, and those really explain a lot – why the Spartan armor is different than that in Combat Evolved, the motivations of squadmates, and just why Reach is so vital. With that said, the way Bungie is able to wrap up their part of the story with a few sequences and references in the end is noteworthy. They found a way to somehow cleanly and clearly define themselves and their story within the universe in a way that far surpassed my expectations. While Halo will no doubt continue for many years to come, everyone will clearly recognize Bungie's era.
To get through all of this will require fighting. Lots and lots of fighting. Not just ground pounding either, but some genuinely good space combat missions and an interesting on-planet helicopter sortie. In fact, I would actually play an entire game based on the space portion; it's been so long since we've had a solid space combat title, and what's presented only whets the appetite. By and large, though, combat takes place planetside, with you playing the part of a new recruit on Noble Team. The team will actually play a prominent role throughout your journey, protecting your flank, scouting with you, or standing as one in holding the line. I actually came to really like the banter and interaction, and it's a shame that there wasn't more of it. I think the intent was to not take away from the importance of the assigned objectives, but I found them to be more likeable than a lot of other first-person shooter squads. With them holding firm, you will go about locking down locations and salvaging what remains of the Spartan program and a new form of AI. As I said before, these are all of the things an army does while in retreat, and that's what Reach largely is. After it becomes apparent that the Covenant have arrived in force for a full-scale invasion, the game becomes a very tense race against time. Accomplishing these tasks will be done in the familiar Halo mold, though this time combat feels more like an amalgamation than in the previous titles: the enhanced visor view of 3 and ODST are gone, dual wielding (2 and 3) is gone, but the power-ups from 3 are back and enhanced to allow for multiple use. The lore apparently explains all of this, which has something to do with versions and variants of Spartan armor, but most will find themselves more than happy to trade in their double sub machineguns for the chance to lock down their armor (invincible but immobile), sprint, use a jet pack, create a holographic double, or turn Predator-like invisible over and over.
The enemies are largely the same this time around, though spruced up a bit. The most notable of the Covenant's forces is the new close-range Skirmishers, a Jackal unit that can be a pain to deal with, even without a shield. The Grunts seemed much more suicidal this time around as well, which was unsettling. The AI is largely on par with previous releases, and it even scales to match the number of players in co-op. Even though it's good, and the battles often have some wiggle room missing in other shooters, there will be times when the computer flakes out and doesn't react to a situation. There seemed to a unit or two every other encounter that would stand around while their cohorts got into the action, as if they didn't recognize the firefight nor me, with my giant machinegun, right next to them. This isn't limited to the enemy, either, as friendlies would also suddenly get confused as to how to get into a Warthog. To be clear, such behavior is the exception rather than the rule, and the AI clearly exhibits intelligence, such as flanking and dodging, but it's just a shame it wasn't more consistent.
After the campaign, and a nice post-credit extra, a message pops up informing you that your time with Reach is just beginning, and that's pretty accurate. What Bungie is refereeing to, of course, is multiplayer. The main connection between the single-player portion and multiplayer are credits earned that are used to customize your own Spartan, from different types of body armor (helmet, each shoulder, visor knee guards, etc.) to emblems to voices used in Firefight. Similar to before it's all for show, but even so, the differentiation is nice when you jump online and see so many Spartans all over the place. With up to 16 players, it's nice to be able to stand out in the crowd.
After so many releases and an ever-increasing emphasis on multiplayer, it has truly become a beastly component. Fortunately, Bungie has wrangled bucketloads of options and features into a handful of well-designed menus. One of the new features to help keep track of friends is the Active Roster, which lists all friends currently playing, the modes they are in, and options to invite them to join up or for you to join in. Then there is the ability to describe yourself for better matchmaking purposes, indicating how talkative you are, if you're into winning or having fun, a team player or lone wolf, and if you prefer a loud or more subdued experience. Then there are the pre-defined and custom Loadouts, Playlists, and matching of rank and skill, all making for a more engrossing and tailored experience. Multiplayer is so integral and ingrained that each single-player game is loaded by going to a menu that doubles as a lobby so that others can join in to lend a hand.
Aside from Matchmaking, multiplayer's other primary modes are Firefight and Custom. Firefight is similar to ODST, but it now lasts one Set and features more variations, such as Gruntpocalypse (only Grunts) and Rocket Fight (everyone has a rocket launcher and unlimited ammo), in addition to a Classic mode. Custom allows you to create a game tailored to your preference with one of the dozen modes, which are a healthy lot that range from the traditional (King of the Hill) to the offbeat (the zombie-spawning Infection). A handful of the maps are from earlier titles, which is somewhat disappointing given that they seemed to be included to pad out the count of the new set, but fortunately there is the improved Forge mode (e.g. object snapping and phasing) to help offset that. The Forge is a robust level editor that allows you to tweak multiplayer maps by adding everything from assault rifles to satellite antennas. A budget is allocated in the beginning that limits just what can be placed, though not everything in the game is available for use, offering a comprehensible system that helps to keep things from getting out of hand. Forge creations can be made available to friends or everyone, and a ranking and recommendation system is available to allow access to the more popular creations. As a demonstration as to how powerful the editor is, Bungie has introduced the Forge World, a seven-section map created by the same tools that you can use by piece or as a whole. So, while the initial map limit might be a bummer for longtime fans, the extra replayability provided by the Forge should go a long way in providing some much-needed longevity.
With all of the Skull modifiers (does the confetti explosion and kazoo sound death animation ever get old?), map-editing tools, single and team modes, awards, movie capabilities, and stats, multiplayer is both ridiculously addictive and packed to the gills. I cannot think of a more feature-rich counterpart, or one that even comes close.
So there you have it, Halo fans, all of what Reach has to offer: a solid single-player campaign, made better in co-op, with a show-stopping multiplayer component. Of course, for the diehards, being witness to the fall of Reach will have a much greater impact than a casual follower or one who isn't steeped in the lore; for the rest, it'll be a slow build, with a few stumbles, but a solid finish. Along the way, there is a surprisingly good space combat mission – more, please – and some great camaraderie, but also the nagging feeling that this is the end of an era. While Bungie's next moves are uncertain, one thing is: they ended their role in the Halo saga in style.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)